From the New York Times
CASTELNAU DE MONTMIRAL, France — JÉRÔME GALAUP, a fourth-generation farmer here, and his wife, Nathalie, a teacher, share a dream: to combine their professions and create a teaching farm, where new generations can learn about the particularities of this hilly bit of French soil — this terroir.
Jérôme, 32, and Nathalie, 35, met at a local vendange, the wine harvest. They feel a deep connection to this earth east of Montauban, and a desire to preserve it for their children. “My father and grandmother have a long experience of this place,” he said. “He knows every inch, every stone, and which parcels are for what.”
When he and his father had difficulty getting fermentation in their sparkling wine using only the natural yeasts in the grape, it was his grandmother Lucette who told them not to bottle during a full moon or when the harsh local wind, the vent d’autan, is blowing.
Local knowledge is crucial, of course. But as Nathalie put it: “It’s the person who gives the work and the identity to terroir. There’s an emotional identity to a particular piece of the earth.”
The importance of terroir to the French psyche and self-image is difficult to overestimate, because it is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity — of roots, and home — in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere.
Though related to the farm-to-table and locavore movements of a new generation, terroir is not about proximity, but about honesty and community, an idea even more important to a France that fears losing its identity in a larger Europe and a competitive world.
Terroir is most identified with wine, of course — the same pinot noir grape grown in different parcels of Burgundy will produce a different wine — but the idea extends far deeper into French culture and is even deployed as an advertising gimmick.
Nearly everything, even in the supermarket, must be seen to be sourced from somewhere. Peaches come from Roussillon. Chickens from Bresse. Meat from Limousin cows. The “Noir de Bigorre” is a special pig, with its own Web site.
The label of Le Fierbois yogurt, produced proudly in Touraine, shows happy cows lazing about on the grass under two columns of trees. Yogurt in glass jars comes from La Ferme du Manège, “the farm of the riding school,” in Normandy. Olivier Mallard, the former bacteriologist who owns it, said, “I perpetuate the traditions as best I can,” using only the freshest milk of the day. “Today, to have ‘farm’ in your brand is a connotation of terroir,” he said, in contrast to industrial products like Danone or Yoplait.
After numerous scandals about horse meat in manufactured food, Mr. Mallard said, there is a value to “authenticity,” a market for “a return to the things of the terroir, which reassures people a little.”
The sandwich shop Cojean sells a sablé cookie — made with butter from Poitou-Charentes and salt from the Île de Ré. The best crottin cheese comes from Chavignol, in Sancerre, so is ruled to go best with Sancerre wine, that often superb transformation of the sauvignon blanc grape. Ordinary mushrooms are known as “champignons de Paris.” Even McDonald’s here features “onions from Brittany.”
Oysters, too, are thought to have a terroir — the same breed from the waters of Ireland will not taste the same as those from Normandy or Marennes-Oléron, the way the same breed of asparagus will taste differently, says the chef Yannick Alléno, if grown in Vallauris, near Cannes, or in California. “This is where terroir expresses itself,” he said.
The notion of terroir is essentially political, at heart a conservative, even right-wing idea, even though it has been picked up by a new generation that would consider itself on the left, opposing globalization and pesticides. It’s not just about organic farming or locavores, since authentic products of terroir can come from far away.
Alain Ducasse, the renowned chef-entrepreneur, said in an interview that “the terroirs, it’s our gastronomy” — the diverse heart of all French cuisine, which “must be preserved jealously.” Viewed from abroad, he said, “it can seem complicated, but it is this diversity that provides all our riches, our strength.”
The Galaups live in an ancient farmhouse, parts of which date from the 17th century, with their young children, Camille, Jérémie and Corentin; his father, Jacques; his grandmother Lucette and her sister, Tatie, who tend to wear matching plaid housecoats. They dine around a worn wooden table, with a bench for seating; they eat largely what they grow and drink their own wine, or that of neighbors here in the Gaillac, much of it made from the seven varieties of a local grape, Mauzac.
This is one of the oldest wine-growing areas of France, planted in grapes by the Romans, and the Galaups and their friend Laurent Cazottes, a third-generation farmer and distiller of eaux de vie, are trying to ensure that local varieties of grapes and fruits are resurrected here to produce something both rooted and new. Mr. Cazottes, for example, makes a rich eau de vie from local varieties of cherry, as well as one from an ancient variety of greengage plum; a superb poire Williams using only the ripe flesh; and a distillation of 72 kinds of tomatoes.
The Parisian chef Mr. Alléno, 48, left behind his three-star restaurant at Le Meurice, the Paris hotel, to start a new bistro in Paris called Terroir Parisien. Born in the Paris suburbs to parents who ran small bistros, he decided to emphasize the products of the Île de France, the department surrounding Paris, which once was the incubating heart of French gastronomy.
The first restaurants began in Paris, Mr. Alléno noted, and he wanted — just like the Galaups and Mr. Cazottes — to revive the products of the past nearly made extinct by modernization and industrialization. So he uses the black poularde de Houdan, much favored by Louis XIV and a different breed from the one grown in Bresse, which “dethroned” it, he said. He’s made arrangements with farmers to grow the asparagus of Argenteuil, the purple cabbages of Pontoise, the peaches and white figs of Montreuil, and the watercress of Méréville. “Today one could say that there were 160 products of Parisian origin, from the Paris basin, that existed since the beginning of time,” he told me. “My dream is to rediscover these 160 products.”
There are similar concerns about the extinction of the many varieties of French cheese. As confusing and wondrous as they are, there is general moaning over the growing preference of price-conscious French consumers for pasteurized, industrial cheeses picked up in the supermarket. In 1979, France had 20,000 cheese shops. Now the figure is about 3,000, and only about 7 percent of French cheese is made from raw milk.
Jean-Claude Ribaut, a food critic for Le Monde, called terroir “a sort of lost paradise.” But it also stands for a reaction to modernity, he said: “One could say it’s a vision a bit backward-looking, but it’s also, I think, a battle of today, to try to safeguard what gives us pleasure and health.”
The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities, who will pay more for quality, for freshness, for artisanal craft and for that undefinable authenticity that is the essence of terroir.
“If I come to the end of my career and see a significant diversity of Parisian agricultural lands, well, then at least I will have accomplished my thing,” says Mr. Alléno. “I don’t know if it is essential, but I will have done something, and I would be happy.”
The Paris bureau chief of The New York Times.
Maïa de la Baume and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.
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