Terroir and Industrial Food Systems
By Erik Amundsen
Terroir is a French word meaning “soil” or “earth” but encompasses so much more. It is an idea that expresses all of the unseen factors that go into making something what it is. A grape is a grape is a grape, until you taste it. The flavor of said grape is influenced by the rain that fell on it, the microbes that existed in the soil, the other plants that grew near it, the proximity of a forest, the quality of air. The soil that nurtures that grape is the culmination of millions of years of geological activity that created and cultivated the soil. There are literally millions of factors that go into the flavor of this grape which could never be recreated in a lab, much less in another landscape thousands of miles away. When you take that grape, ferment it, and age it in oak barrels you exponentially increase the number of factors that influence the essence of what that wine is. The variety of oak, the age of the tree, the amount of sun it received, the natural yeast that exists in the air, all of these also affect the end product. This is why wine, tea, or coffee varies widely in the complexity of flavors, depth of color, the texture, and subtle nuances. When wine is made you are getting hints of everything that encompasses the grape’s origin. The flavor compounds can be expressed either in scientific terms or in poetry but neither tell the story as well as actually tasting it. To taste a truly wonderful wine is to ingest the entirety of the ecosystem in which it was born. This is not an excuse to be pretentious about the wine you drink. Drink what you like! These millions of factors mean that there are different wines for every palate.
Wine might be the most common example for experiencing terroir but every natural product has some level of terroir in it- both the positive outcomes of its environment and the negative ones. This is certainly true for the Red Delicious apple that has been sitting in a basket in the break room for almost two weeks and has become more decoration than food. You know this apple, the last one picked in the mixed bag of generic fruit. The Red Delicious has its own nuances: a thick skin which makes its shelf life longer and the bitter aftertaste, an unfortunate casualty of the selective breeding that made it more profitable. You can almost taste the industrial row after row after row of trees pumping out apples. You may not taste all of the chemicals that go into creating it but those chemicals are the very things robbing it of flavor. The herbicides and pesticides that are used to keep the field void of any living creature or plant other than the grafted Red Delicious tree. The soil bereft of life-giving organisms must be artificially aerated, painstakingly sprayed, and then fed with synthetic nutrients. The apples are picked before they are ripe to ensure none are lost to spoilage, they are disinfected, literally dyed a deeper red, covered in wax, and then stored in a zero-oxygen chamber for months until a gas station orders a case of them. They are then placed in an ethylene gas chamber to force them to ripen evenly and then loaded onto a truck to be delivered with shiny packages of processed foods.
It is the perfect snack food to be enjoyed in the climate controlled break room, deprived of sunlight but adequate light levels are achieved with sterile fluorescent light bulbs.
The obvious choice for cafeteria lunches and office mandated health programs. An obligatory “healthy option” that fits in the budget. Engineered more than cultivated, the life bred out of it.
The origin of your food matters. In choosing the low-cost option you sacrifice flavor, nutrition, ethical land treatment, fair treatment of the human beings working the fields. Every time you choose the inferior grocery store apple over what the farmers market has is in season you are putting another nail in the coffin of natural food.
The produce at the grocery store is often beautiful looking. Giant, unblemished tomatoes with deep red skin line the shelves. The problem is when you take them home and slice into them they are a pale pinkish white on the inside. They are mealy and lack the flavor of true tomatoes, but have been bred to appear beautiful and to store and transport well. They are a shadow of what an heirloom tomato is. It’s easy to understand why things have become this way. People buy with their eyes. Beautiful, tasteless produce will sell better than delicious, ugly produce. A citrus farmer once advised me to look for the ugly oranges. The perfect skinned, deep-colored ones probably were toward the outside of the tree’s canopy. The sun fell on them and they grew and ripened quickly. The ugly ones were closer to the trunk where they did not receive as much light. They took much longer to mature but they also had more time to develop flavor.
It is interesting how this reflects the trends of our culture in general. Beautiful, toxic people are put on pedestals to be worshiped while people of character who are blemished or misshapen are banished to the margins. Nature doesn’t produce perfect people nor perfect produce. So we take it upon ourselves engineer or alter or them as close as possible to our idea of perfection. We prefer outward perfection so we airbrush to cover imperfections but we are also disappointed when the facade doesn’t deliver what we thought it would.
Are we talking about people or produce? It doesn’t matter, the result is the same. Appearance is only part of the character of anything. We must take into account the entirety of any natural thing before we can understand and appreciate it.
The final product of any natural thing is only as great as the sum of its parts. If we want flavorful nourishing food we need to preserve and cultivate the natural landscapes where that food comes from. You vote with your dollar- when you purchase high quality food, you are supporting the farmers trying to preserve the natural food systems and demonstrate the demand for real food. The choice is yours; you can support Red “Delicious” apples or local Honeycrisp apples that are flecked with some rough patches on the skin.
For good or for bad, the produce you buy will be influenced by its terroir. As the saying goes, We are what we eat. What are you?