The Dirt: American terroir

Have you ever bitten into an apple and said to yourself involuntarily, “Wow, that tastes like Okanogan County!”? Or caught a whiff of ripe peach juice and thought, “Man, that smells like Georgia!”?

If that sounds far-fetched, think about the last time you heard a pop song from your childhood and thought, “That sounds like ninth grade.” To push the analogy a bit further, let’s say it’s reasonable to think, “That song came from ninth grade.” So would it be possible to taste a food, a piece of fruit, a slice of tomato or a wedge of cheese and think, “This food came from (wherever it might be)”?

This somewhat odd idea lies at the heart of a cultural phenomenon that’s common in European cuisine and French wine in particular—and it’s beginning to be tapped as a marketing strategy by produce growers in Western North Carolina.

Known as terroir, the concept conveys the idea that the place where a piece of produce is grown not only affects its quality but can even alter its identity. The idea of terroir is given legal definition by the World Intellectual Property Organization, which designates geographical indications to be used on goods “that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that origin.”

The French define terroir in their system of AOC, or Appellation d’origine contrôlée (“term of controlled origin”). This system decrees that in order for the sparkling white wine we call champagne to be marketed as such in France, it must be produced in that country’s Champagne region. A product labeled under the AOC system must, by definition, have qualities that “come from both natural factors of its place of production and human factors … together producing the product’s ‘typicity’ or special, traditional character.” Champagne is not champagne if it was produced in South America, or with different growing or handling practices, and no wine from South America may ever be labeled with the AOC champagne name. It’s one wine style that cannot, as it were, be outsourced.

As romantic as these labeling systems may seem, however, they feel frightfully out of place in our national marketplace. The concept of terroir is culturally and legally foreign to the United States. In a society where brand names and trademarks travel with individuals, corporations and their work, and where globalization has dictated that most products should be made whenever, however and wherever it’s cheapest to do so, the idea of a trademark or brand name that remains forever attached to one place seems a little unnatural.

But as food anthropologist Elizabeth Barham turns the phrase, terroir “can also designate a rural or provincial region that is considered to have a marked influence on its inhabitants. It is said in French, for example, that certain customs or idioms are rooted in their terroir, or that a person strongly conveys a sense of the terroir of their birth and upbringing.”

This idea rings most true in our American experience when the mobility of people and ideas is restricted or nonexistent; when change occurs slowly and distinct traits and customs are allowed to settle in separate regions. Think of the unique stories, musical styles and Elizabethan speech patterns that may once have puddled, remained and become concentrated in the isolated coves of the Southern Appalachians. We have an unspoken understanding that in order for a person to be truly “of” a place, in order for a person’s identity to truly evoke a sense of a place, they must be from a family that has spent many generations there. But could it be possible to apply the meaning of terroir to products that are not strictly traditional, to redefine the word’s meaning through, for instance, a marketing campaign? Three Western North Carolina campaigns think so.

Take, for instance, Madison Farms, a nonprofit supported by the N.C. Cooperative Extension that has begun in the past several years to place an identifying seal on produce grown by its farmer-members in Madison and adjoining counties. Although the label does enable shoppers in some retail stores to identify items that were grown or produced by Madison Farms members, it also formalizes more large-scale channels for locally grown food to be sold and labeled as such. Madison Farms growers supply fresh produce to public schools and colleges in Madison and Buncombe counties.

Another local branding program, the “Appalachian Grown” label, is controlled by the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and more closely mirrors the legal and conceptual framework of the French AOC system. Growers who wish to display the round logo on their produce must certify that they grow within a geographically designated area (more or less a 100-mile radius around Asheville). Legal agreements and use restrictions ensure that when shoppers or diners see the logo, they can easily identify marked produce as locally grown.

A third regional-branding project, Buy Haywood, takes a similar approach, assigning a logo to produce grown by member-growers in Haywood County. But the Buy Haywood project has also incorporated a significant amount of education into its efforts, making the case to shoppers that those products that are grown in Haywood County are superior to the same products grown elsewhere. (Check out their award-winning short video at www.buyhaywood.com).

Both initiatives have their own goals: Buy Haywood seeks to define a growing region with its own distinctive local identity, the wide and rich valleys of Haywood County, while Appalachian Grown capitalizes on the richly defined region of the Southern Appalachians to benefit local growers and help local shoppers seek out the flavors of their home.

But in their own ways, both programs grow from—and are helping to redefine—the meaning of terroir.

[Asheville resident Ginger Kowal is a UNCA senior majoring in biology.]

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