Over the past five or ten years, food magazines (and I read far too many of them) have lingered long and lovingly over the concept of terroir. Here’s how the word is defined in the Lexicon of Food:
Terroir is the idea that food has specific qualities that are influenced by a sense of place. From the people who tend to it, to the minerals in the soil in which it is grown, to the local microclimates of the area, how food is farmed influences everything about its taste, texture, smell, and overall quality.
The notion of terroir has long been familiar to people who are knowledgeable about wine. I am not one of those people. But I have had a couple of opportunities in recent years to go on vineyard tours; and let me tell you, terroir is the only thing they like talking about more than the makes and models of their fermentation tanks.
My first such tour was in Priorat, a region of Catalonia, which may or may not be a region of Spain, depending on who you ask. Oenophiles (a word I do not know how to pronounce) adore the wines of Priorat. And the vintners of Priorat will tell you that their wine is so special entirely because of the landscape, which looks like this:
Dry as a bone; the soil is barren and full of rocks. It’s nearly impossible to grow anything at all. In a good year, they harvest five grapes per acre. But oh, those five grapes! They are the most magnificent, the most flavorful, precious grapes imaginable. Less is more, as they say. The harsh Priorat terroir enables the region’s vintners to collect their scanty harvests and transform them into incredibly complex, gorgeous, and enormously expensive wines.
Or so they say. Priorat's wines are beloved of people who know how to pronounce the word oenophile. I didn't particularly care for them; my palate isn't quite smart enough.
A couple of years later, I had the chance to tour a vineyard where they make a wine called Txakoli, a word I actually do know how to pronounce. The vineyard is in Getaria, a town in the Basque region, which may or may not be part of Spain, depending on who you ask. The Basque country looks like this:
See those big, thick clouds? They are hanging around because it rains all the time in the Basque country. It is rich and verdant and they grow many, many tons of grapes per acre; they can hardly help themselves. Txakoli is not a particularly pricey wine, what with those abundant grapes and all. More is less. But Txakoli is very pleasant, light and (usually) sparking, and I do like it quite a bit, probably because it reminds me of beer.
I have grape vines in my garden, too.
They produced a handful of grapes the first couple of years after I planted them about a decade ago. But in recent seasons they have produced nary a grape – so any wine I might have produced from those non-existent grapes would in theory have been infinitely expensive.
But this year, the Newton, MA terroir seems hell-bent for leather on churning out all the grapes I could possibly use. Who knows -- maybe I will try to ferment some and see what happens! They are Concord grapes, meaning that the best case scenario is ...Manischewitz.
But mostly, I grow vegetables in my little garden.
The terroir here is defined by the compost I regularly provide, but also by shade from nearby houses and trees, and by exhaust fumes from the busy street outside my fence.
This year, the terroir is also defined by dust from the endless road and sidewalk repair going on outside the fence, as well: the City has been ripping up the street and the sidewalk nonstop since May.
But I think that most of all, the terroir in my vegetable garden is defined by this trumpet vine:
It is huge, and explosive, and while we hack it back to a bare trunk every year, by July it has swallowed everything in its path. It is separated from the vegetable garden by a distance of maybe ten feet, lots of other plants, and a brick path. But this trumpet vine is voracious, and relentess. Its roots are constantly seeking new territory; every day I find myself pulling new eruptions of trumpet vine foliage out from among the kale or the cukes. It is everywhere, inescapable; a big, orange, ill-mannered bully.
Little wonder that it is called a Trumpet vine.
They say that the basil grown in Genoa, Italy, makes pesto that tastes like nothing else on this earth. I have not had been to Genoa; but I can say that the basil from the Newton, MA terroir tastes well enough. The lettuce, beans and kale have been doing well. But the tomatoes, sadly, seem a bit scanty this year, as do the eggplants. They are growing, sure; but they look sad to me, not blowsy and dripping with fruit as in some years past. This is the best eggplant in the veggie patch; and thus far it has only one half-matured fruit to its name, and no signs of others on the way:
But the veggie patch is not my only backyard microclimate. I am also growing some eggplants and tomatoes (along with a whole lot of flowers) in containers near my back porch.
This particular terroir is characterized by a scant half-day of sun, bagged potting soil, and a whole lot of dehydrated chicken shit.
But look at the eggplants in terroir number deux:
This one plant – one plant! – has five fruits already in various states of maturity, and a whole bunch of flowers, male and female, meaning that more eggplants are on the way.
But as they say, more is less, less is more. That single eggplant in the veggie patch, the one that has to fight off the exhaust fumes and the Trumpet vine, if it survives to adulthood, will be the most delicious eggplant the planet has ever seen. And I will make it into a tiny but exquisite serving of eggplant parmesan.
Which I will then bottle and sell for $90.