Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Terroir': Creating A Sense Of Place

"Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart or in the head? How begot, how nourished?" Shakespeare asks. And replies "It is engender'd in the eyes, with gazing fed."

Looking at the picturesque town of Epoisses in France I at least can easily agree with Shakespeare, and making a sort of bad pun for which the bard had a weakness, one might add it is fed by grazing too, since Epoisse is famous for its cheeses.

The picture shows the cheese-making enterprise of Jean Berthaut. Making this cheese is a complicated art, involving washing (the cheese) with salty water, then by a month in a humid cellar, followed by more washing, now with a mix of rainwater and a rather lethally strong alcoholic spirit called Marc de Bourgogne - not just once, but two to three times a week.

Much of this process is dedicated to the matter of ripening the cheese, called affinage. Quite reasonably enough it is carried out by an affineur, who also rotates and nudges the cheeses (a little like the remueur who twist the champagne bottles - a process known in English as riddling).

I tasted some of the rich and delicious Berthaut Epoisses cheese today (in San Francisco, not France) in the presence of the master cheese-maker himself, which is what prompted me to find out more.

French cheese is an ancient tradition, and like wine, terroir is a central concept. Terroir means land, but the real essence of the word does not translate into English very easily, but a key element is a sense of place, of being rooted somewhere. Terroir points to the unique aspects of soil, climate, situation and farming methods used to produce certain kinds of food like cheese and wine (though it can also apply to tea and coffee).

The quality of being 'rooted' is becoming increasingly rare for many of us, but the story of many of the old cheeses (and wines like champagne) is actually also one of serendipitous experimentation, which serves as a reminder that a sense of place and of traditions which in turn give people a sense of belonging all have to be invented by people trying different things out.

Many people will be trying new things out today, whether they want to or not, but one of the fruits may be new senses of terroir and belonging, as well as a renewed sense of the importance of local food whilst having the chance to learn from other places, directly and indirectly.

No comments: