Terroir, the tastes that emerge from the natural environment where a food is cultivated, is most often associated with wine—at least here in the United States. But food anthropologist Amy Trubek further explores the connection in The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir (University of California Press, May 2008). We recently caught up with Trubek, formerly the executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network and now an assistant professor at the University of Vermont.
If you were talking about cheese, you would talk about the location, conditions and altitude at which the cows or sheep are grazing and the plants they’re eating. Those attributes would be found in the milk that would be ultimately translated into the taste of the cheese.
Can you comment on the tradition of terroir in the United States?
Maybe 200 years ago lots of people [in the U.S.] would have understood terroir. If you talk to old-time Vermonters, they understand the differences in the great flavor profiles of maple syrup and they understand the Green Mountain potato versus other potatoes. One of my ideas is that with the industrialization of the food system, the decline of diverse rural economies and a move toward a more integrated urban economy, this may be knowledge that we’ve lost but not necessarily knowledge we’ve never had. That’s a question I’m interested in but I don’t really have an answer.
How can Americans learn—or relearn—to start cultivating that sense, a taste of place?
You can actually see that happening right now. I think all the efforts to localize the food system and to support smaller-scale farming could be understood as embracing a taste of place; so could community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets and farm-to-table movements. Figure out one or two foods or drinks—like wine, cheese or bread—that are considered very particular to where you live and really investigate them. Find out more about the food’s history. Talk to the people who make it. Take the time to savor it and to really consider what it tastes like. Think while you’re eating it and have a conversation about it.