THE BLOG
11/03/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: The Terroir of Food

Terroir, is a descriptor for the soil, the land, and ultimately, the distinctive soul of a wine. The word assigns place to a wine. For some time now, many chefs have been (proudly) sharing the source of their ingredients with their guests. Most farm-to-table restaurants list their farms in some fashion or another. At cress, we do the same because we are proud of our ingredients and when possible want to share that sense of place about where we are located. Sometimes, we have to resort to ingredients that are not grown locally because it isn't the season or simply not in stock. I can always distinguish between grocery store vegetables even if they may be "Fresh from Florida" and the vegetable grown in season at a distance of 15 miles from our restaurant. It depends on a variety of factors like the seeds, soil composition, supplements, water, and the farmer's soul. Baby eggplants in Mumbai taste very different from the very same ones found in Indian grocery stores in Central Florida. They look the same, but they don't have nearly the flavor as the ones I loved as a child; stuffed with a coriander, peanut, and coconut masala. As much as I love the okra grown by Bill and Paul Tomazin of The Barefoot Farmer farm, it tastes different than the ones used to make bhindi masala in a restaurant in New Delhi. Some artisans contend that the water used in making pizza or pasta offers distinctiveness to the texture and even flavor of the dough. Pride in a place is powerful because it celebrates the culture and essence of a region. So, when chefs preach about supporting local farms and farmers, they are sharing their pride in being in that place and the privilege of being able to cook with ingredients grown on the land they have chosen to call home.

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The terroir of food has as much to do with the chemistry of the soil used to grow the food, as it does with the soul and dedication of the farmer. Hydroponically grown produce cannot nearly capture the terroir of the region, but the water used to nourish the system does to a degree. Nowadays, many farms are promoting that their produce is grown in the ground as opposed to vertical growing systems which are separated from the terroir. It is an announcement about how the crop represents the soul of the land. Land however, is limited and in some instances a vanishing commodity. So, it may not always be possible to hold on to and practice the ideal of the terroir of food. It will take a compromise between old-fashioned values, science, genetics, and creative utilization of the land and seasons for multiple growing options. We will have to discover and develop new things to grow in land which may have traditionally been used for only a certain set of crops. In turns, chefs may have greater opportunities to utilize new ingredients grown closer to home which are otherwise typical of similar latitudes halfway around the globe. So, while it may not be necessary for the eggplant in Florida to taste like the one I grew up with in Mumbai, it is more important that the one grown in each land be representative of the land. That kind of pride in place will help better sustain local farms and farmers.