October 12, 2013


Terroir. An intrinsically French word ... and concept. A word that is variously and too simply translated as land. soil. region. None of these work. Terroir. A term that we do not have a word for in English. I hear it used in speaking about food, mostly frequently (but not only) about wine. But just what does it mean?

Honey is important in France. It isn't hard to find shops specializing in different types of honey, from different regions. Those various honeys are an expression of terroir. I saw these particular hives, on a terrace partway up the mountain, as as I was climbing to Col de l'Exil in the Cévennes. Stopping to photograph them, I quickly realized that the bees humming and buzzing was audible from where I was standing.

Terroir: a cultural concept, a word that links food to the land it comes from. Terroir: specifically defined or determined by geology; soil; weather and exposure; plants, seeds and rootstock; other plants growing nearby. Also by decisions that  farmers, make, or do not make.

Very close to Beynac-et-Cazenac, on the way to visit the castle there, I rode past this field of asparagus, growing near the Dordogne. It was tall, thick, very green. Asparagus never, ever, looks like this where I live.

Terroir: The interaction of all those things, and more, with the plant produces something specific. Regional. Local. But region or location doesn't determine terroir, although terroir is an expression partly of region and location. Terroir can vary within a region, within even a small area. I think that terroir has a great deal to do with specificity.

We all know France is well-known for its cheese, regional cheeses, many of which don't travel well. DeGaulle famously said "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six kinds of different cheese." I have often seen that remark corrected, always with much larger numbers of different kinds of cheese. These cheeses, photographed through glass at the market in Nimes, are all marked by terroir.

Terroir. A cultural concept that developed in a culture that cares profoundly for its heritage, its food, its exact place, its specific existence in this particular place at this particular time. It respects diversity and variation in food.

This head of garlic was grown in the Dordogne, I bought it at the market in St. Céré. I told the farmer who grew it, and sold it to me, that it was a present for my husband, that we love garlic, and that we would plant the cloves in our garden. No, no, he told me you should not plant it, it would die. He made very sure that I understood what he was saying. This garlic will not grow well, it would die. I promised that we would eat it, not plant it, and we will. To me, that is an expression of terroir: this specific garlic must be grown in its specific terroir to thrive.

Is this being lost today with the pressures of globalization, standardization, cheap food? I don't know the answer to that but I know it is threatened. Specifically threatened by the current international trade talks, and the US insistence on free trade of US grown, GMO altered, factory-farmed meat. An agricultural system, a culture that values terroir is far different from an agricultural system based on mass produced generic foods developed for shipping qualities, developed for profit. I for one am not interested in that food, do not want to eat it, and hope the Europeans don't cave in to pressure.

Oh yes, this is a bike blog, that is politics. But politics influences bicycling, and culture influences bicycling. And certainly politics influences culture. The little roads I ride on, the small farms and agricultural lands I ride through, the local foods I enjoy, the old varieties of livestock I see while riding. These things are all threatened by the US position in international trade talks. To use two other French words I don't think have exact English equivalents, the paysage (not exactly landscape) and patrimoine (not exactly cultural heritage) of regions, are a big part of what makes cycling in France so special. They are threatened by the US position in these international trade talks.

I don't know just what the names of these critters are, but they are beautiful, and not factory raised. I bet whatever food, or foods, comes from them is delicious. And formed by its terroir.

Now, I know I am writing on thin ice, talking about a concept so central to a culture that is not my culture. So I particularly welcome any comments, corrections, explanations from readers.


  1. We've always grappled with the concept of terroir but I think you've got as close as a non-French person can get to the idea. Adore the way each village/area promotes their food/wine and love the fact that the markets don't meet EU health and safety regs - kiss goodbye to the whole thing if they are ever forced to. As to GMOs, it does seem like one of the devils that many of mainland EU countries are ready to fight and fight. Here's to them winning that important battle.

    1. Thanks for that. Health and safety regs are an odd thing. They are "supposed" to protect the citizen ... oh, is that consumer ... but usually end up supporting big industry, at least here, by making it so difficult for anything small and local to function. As you said, it is an important battle.

  2. I couldn't agree more on the dangers of the US position on agricultural free trade which is disastrous for almost everyone else in the world (and deeply hypocritical as well.)

    GMOs are a deep and difficult subject. The selective breeding over hundreds of years which have produced the local variations in plants and animals which we value is just slow motion genetic modification of a sort. The problem is with the methods and morality which big business brings to the table. I am not against GMOs but I am against GMOs. It's confusing.

    The downside of terroir and the attendant mentality/spirituality is maybe the pressure to go on producing and eating second rate stuff just because it is your own second rate stuff and it may lead to never discovering that there is a whole wide world of different and enjoyable tastes out there. It's wonderful for the traveller, skipping from market to market with a world of different flavours but maybe a bit dull for someone who goes to the same market every week.

    I really like health and safety. I hate being poisoned by the slipshod or the criminal.

    I love buying local food and I love eating it but most of all I really love a good argument.

    1. Good evening Tootlepedal,

      Sadly enough, I have to agree with your assessment of disastrous and hypocritical. I see it as disastrous here also.

      In the spirit of the good argument that you said you love, I agree that plants have been genetically modified since just after man started cultivating them. This seems different to me .... "Round Up Ready" corn, soy, etc. is qualitatively different than a new variety of apple, no?

      Based only on the scanty anecdotal evidence of French households I've been in, there are plenty of supermarket foods, national and international flavors available...I doubt that terroir is a limiter in eating these days.

      Lastly, I couldn't agree more ... being poisoned by the slipshod, or criminal, especially in food is more than a nuisance!

      Great to hear from you!!

      Cheers, Suze

  3. Les produits du terroir sont recherchés pour leur authenticité, et la manière dont ils sont fabriqués : Respectueuse de l'environnement.
    Ils permettent au touriste de mieux s'imprégner de la région et de prolonger le voyage avec un produit acheté pendant ses vacances.
    le col de l'Exil : Un beau col chargé d'histoire.

    1. Bonsoir Jean-Jacques,

      Merci pour ton commentaire!

      Je n'ai pas assez compris l'importance du respect pour l'environnement avec les produits du terroir ... c'est bon à apprendre.

      Pour moi, comme touriste, les produits du terroir m'a donné des beaux moments et des bons souvenirs.

      J'ai aussi des très bons souvenirs de col de l'Exil! Les ruches perchées m'a surpris!


  4. This is one of the strongest arguments one can make for dismantling global standardization. The forces of industry are terrible. Yet you give examples of communities that maintain faith and find strength in the particularity of place. Well done!


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