Understanding the Value and Implications of Terroir in America

September 10, 2010

As part of our Cheese 101 project, The Lady is sharing the seven seminars she attended at the recent American Cheese Society Conference in Seattle.

The first seminar she attended delved into the concept of terroir and how place affects taste.

Moderator: Janet Fletcher – Food Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle

Panelists: Amy Trubek, Ph.D., University of Vermont; Ivan Larcher, Larcher Consulting Company; Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill Farm

Terroir is a concept dating back to 14th Century France and is the belief that the land, the environment and the producer each have a unique effect on the taste of the product they are making.

Originally, the concept applied first to wine, but over time cheese became part of terroir. Terroir also led to the Appellation systems of France, Spain, Italy and the EU whereby particular products from specific areas are “protected” by the governments creating standards unique to the product and the area where it is produced. Under the protected designations wine makers cannot produce a sangiovese wine and call it Chianti unless it is produced in Tuscany. Although the Pinot noir grape is used to produce wine in the Willamette Valley, the producers cannot call it Burgundy as that is a protected name for pinot noir produced in the Burgundy region of France.

Ironically, the word terroir only came into existence in the late 1800s and was created as a marketing tool for the wine makers in France.

Janet Fletcher began the seminar explaining her definition of terroir is “the impact of environment on flavor”. She asked if anyone in the audience thought terroir was bunk and only one hand was raised.

I heard a story a few years back that a certain award-winning cheesemaker of raw milk cheeses in  California, stated that his cheese would taste exactly the same no matter where he made it and no matter where his herd grazed. Believers of terroir were scandalized by this statement.

Dr. Amy Trubek from the University of Vermont was the first speaker. She is an Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences and previously taught at the New England Culinary Institute. She is best known for her book, “Taste of Place”, which explores the multifaceted connections between taste and place in both cuisine and agriculture in the USA. At the University of Vermont she has been studying wines, cheeses, maple syrups and even hickory nuts and how the land, the environment and the producer affects the taste of the final product.

One example is an ongoing study of Tarentaise, an Alpine-style cheese made from raw milk by two dairy farms in Vermont. The recipes are based on the European cheese, Beaufort. Thistle Hill and Spring Brook farms both produce this cheese and are located less than twenty miles apart in Vermont near the foot of the Green Mountains. In this experiment, they took milk from the two farms and transported it to the same cheesemaking facility. The two milks were given to one cheesemaker who used the same recipe to make Tarentaise and began the aging in the same cave facility. Everything, except the milks, is the same. This study will continue for at least two years. At nine months, the two cheeses were tasted and one had a distinct garlic and onion taste which the other lacked. At this point, the study directed its efforts on the farms and found that what the cows were eating was the difference. Both herds were pasture-fed but the grasses and other growth in the meadows was different. Definitely “the taste of place” is in play in this experiment.

The next speaker was a Frenchman, Ivan Larcher, who is a consultant to cheesemakers who are starting their first dairies. He was a farmstead cheesemaker in France. As a Frenchman, he exhibits an “ownership” of the terroir concept and is quite specific in his thoughts about it. (I mean this is a positive way and not as a criticism.)

He believes that terroir cannot be created; it is something you “get”; it’s what you are and it’s what you do. Terroir is the result of humans, practices, heritage, landscape and the direct influence of the microbiological ecosystem of the area. He stated positively that pasteurization of milk destroys the terroir. To realize the benefits and results of terroir, the cheese must be made from raw milk; there are no exceptions to this rule.

According to Larcher, the flavor of cheese is a combination of milk (20%), microbiology (40%) and enzymes (40%).

He also stressed the point that of the millions of kinds of bacteria, only 4 or 5 are bad; the rest are good and necessary to produce flavorful cheese and preserve the terroir of the product. His inference is that the US Government needs to change the laws regarding raw milk products.

The last speaker was Mateo Kehler who makes Bayley Hazen Blue at Jasper Hill Farm. In addition to the Tarentaise project at UV, Kehler spoke about a Vermont Cheddar project also being conducted that is using milk from four different dairies to make cheddar.

He stated that geographical indicators create terroir but went beyond the concept and discussed the globalization of cheesemaking. With his brother, Andy, Kehler has built seven caves for aging and for cheesemakers who cannot age their own cheeses, the brothers will. They want to make artisan cheesemaking into a multi-million dollar enterprise. From what I know, it seems they will be quite successful.

At Jasper Hill, he is also developing a program that will uniform the making of Bayley Hazen Blue and franchise it to cheesemakers other than Jasper Hill.

I left the seminar with a better understanding of terroir and a firm believer that it exists.


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