"Terroir" means "taste of the place" and is a popular concept among wine enthusiasts. In American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, Rowan Jacobsen considers how the same ideas apply to a broad range of agricultural products.
Chapter by chapter, Jacobsen explains how certain combinations of geology, climate, and geography unite with human efforts to produce superior maple syrup, coffee, apple cider, honey, mussels, wild plants, oysters, avocados, salmon, wine, cheese, and chocolate.
The book is a thoroughly entertaining combination of food and travel writing, taking the reader from a Yupik Eskimo community in the Yukon to a remote Venezuelan village renowned for producing the world's finest chocolate. Jacobsen is witty, observant, and enthusiastic about his subjects. He is also able to captivate his audience, even when explaining the science behind the story.
He focuses as much on the people involved as the weather and soil that create the raw materials, with interesting profiles of wild honey specialists, forest foragers, and avocado farmers capable of identifying which tree produced a particular avocado. As Jacobsen explains:
[Terroir is] a partnership between person, plant, and environment to bring something unique into the world. The soil and climate set the conditions; the plants, animals, and fungi respond to them; and then people determine how to bring out the goodness of these food and drinks.Jacobsen and the people he writes about are not utopian food-fantasists -- the book also addresses the practical side of food production, especially in the chapters on biodynamic wine making and artisanal cheese production. As Mateo Kehler, raw milk cheese guru from Jasper Hill Farm, told Jacobsen, "If it is not economically viable, it's not terroir. It's ego gratification." That is a good lesson to remember.
American Terroir is a celebration of place and palate sure to inspire greater examination of ingredients often taken for granted. Jacobsen is sure to make food terroirists out of his readers.
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I have been reading food books because I am on a Food Freedom kick, which you can like on Facebook, or follow on twitter.
This counts as one of my books for the Foodie's Reading Challenge, hosted by Margot at Joyfully Retired.