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06.04.08

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Phaedra

The Taste of Place: A Culture Journey Into Terroir

By Michael S. Gant


"Terroir" is a notoriously difficult word to define. Somehow, it manages to encompass both the natural conditions—soil, geology, hydrology, climate—that make our food possible and the agricultural techniques used to cultivate, harvest and transform crops. These particularities determine distinctive tastes that vary from region to region, from field to field. Thus, terroir can cover everything from wild mushrooms, foraged by serendipity, to wine, which is the end result of sophisticated human manipulation. In their superior culinary vision, the French have championed the notion that terroir crucially links "taste and place," according to nutrition professor Amy B. Trubek's new book. The term, however, is not an ancient one. As Trubek indicates, the French had to actively create and promote the idea, starting in the early 20th century. With the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) system, the French codified and protected traditional agricultural practices by tying them to specific areas; and in the process, they honored an entire way of life. Trubek traces the ways in which the French method has been modified in American winemaking and agriculture. In the United States, terror has come to mean "a less mechanistic and less invasive philosophy of winemaking" as much as a fetish for this hillside's or that valley's grapes. She discusses Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (subject of a recent cover story in Metro), who considers terroir to be "about more than just geography and climate; it is also about a sensibility, or even a spiritual quest." Moving beyond wine, the book explores the extreme localism of chef Odessa Piper, whose L'Etoile in Madison, Wis., strives to prepare dishes with only local, seasonal ingredients, a daunting task in winter. Trubek sees chefs like Piper as a vital link between small farms and consumers; by educating people to appreciate such oddities as shagbark hickory nuts, chefs can enhance demand for local products and sustainable farming. Taste of place doesn't have to be limited to the small nexus of producers and consumers in one area, Trubek argues. Using Vermont maple syrup, aggressively controlled for quality and carefully marketed nationwide, as an example, Trubek concludes that unique, place-based tastes can be the basis for a revolution in thinking about what we eat and how we produce it: "Because our food and drink come from the earth, they must somehow speak to those origins. This is perhaps the universal element of terroir. If you possess the local knowledge by birth or design, the taste of place can reside anywhere." (By Amy B. Trubek; University of California Press; 294 pages; $289.95 hardback)


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