Guest Post: Terroir and the pursuit of flavor

One of the things that I enjoy most is meeting other farmers, learning from them and hearing about their business. I met Hillary and Worth of Pine Trough Branch farm in North Carolina and have been following their journey ever since. I've been to their farm and been able to attend some of the same farm conferences. They are inspiring young farmers who have made the brave leap to full time farmers--something I aspire to do one day. They are true stewards of their land, plants and animals. We share many of the same values and practices in agriculture and I consider them kindred Southern bacon loving spirits. They also have an amazing newsletter and when I read this piece on their website asked if I could share it and re-post here because it is so wonderfully written. If you're ever in North Carolina I recommend trying their meats and saying hi to them at one of the farmers markets where they vend. You can also follow along with their farm adventures on facebook and instagram

Terroir and the Pursuit of Flavor: by PTB Farm

Let's talk about flavor, about taste, about place. Let's talk about the pleasure of eating something in its prime, when it is fully ripe. Let's talk about terroir.

Terroir means "land" in French, you most often hear it used in relation to wine.  Wine has this miraculous ability to express and impart flavors and traits that are of a particular place, of a particular time. And even though it's all just grape juice, you can find hints of chocolate or cherry, leather, tobacco, or pineapple when you taste a wine. Terroir has long been used to describe this idea in wine, but I think it is a really useful way to think about food overall. Because no matter what the food is, it all comes from a combination of sun and soil and climate.  And those elements literally form the components -- the chemical compounds -- that make up the flavors in a food. There are different compounds based on when and where and how it was grown. That's why a summer tomato tastes so good, it tastes like the sun and soil and season it was grown in.

It may take years of tasting different wine to begin to taste terroir, but anyone can look and smell and taste the difference between a summer heirloom tomato and a winter hothouse tomato. And in the pursuit of flavor, it is important to pay attention, to take notice: to fully taste the story. Because the moment you sink your teeth into something, it is the end of a long and interesting story. The story of how it was grown, and where and why. The story of how it was harvested and brought from the farm. And then the other part of the story begins: the part where you decide how to eat it, and when and with whom. The way those two stories intersect -- the story before it reaches your kitchen, and after -- both contribute to the way we experience a particular food. What's most interesting to me is what contributes to the various flavors that are developed long before you set the table, or mix your spices, or even find a recipe: what's interesting to me is terroir.

Terroir is how a particular regions' climate, soils, and terrain affect flavor. For example, spinach grown in the winter here in the southeast, tastes sweeter and somehow meatier than the spinach that is most readily available -- that pale, limp leaf shipped in from California (where, incidentally, it was never frosted on). The spinach here has a different story: the plant responded to environmental factors like low daylight hours and freezing temperatures and began to change. The plant manufactured sugars in its cell walls to protect it from freezing (antifreeze), which in turn, bulked up the plant. This makes the leaves get thicker and sweeter than those leaves that have never lived through the cold dark days of winter. These factors are separate from the soils, which make the leaves huge in the sandy river bottoms, or the sturdy proud leaves in the rocky, dark soils of the mountains. or the stunted leaves that grow in the red clay soils. If the farmer applied dairy compost or compost tea to her beds, then maybe, just maybe you could detect a grassy-ness in the leaves, an added element of fermentation, or maybe you just notice the dark green color; full of vitamin A, and C, and  K, magnesium and calcium, the oxalic acid and the B vitamins.

Like spinach and tomatoes and wine, the flavors found in a thoughtful bite of meat can also impart a world of tastes and stories. Meat is special though because the flavors we taste were developed over a longer period of time than the typical spinach leaf or summer tomato.  With more time comes more complexity, and so you get flavor compounds from spring grasses, summer forages, and dry fall grass stalks. You can see the yellow grass fat and taste the chlorophyll. Fat cells tend to be mostly empty, and so over time, as the animal eats, the fat cells fill with fat-soluble compounds, and we all know that "fat is where the flavor is" when it comes to meat. Yes, it can backfire, I've certainly eaten a grass finished steak and could taste the overwhelming flavor of flat bitter onion grass. But honestly, I'd rather those complex flavors than a corn-fed steak with no story or taste of place. I would rather taste the nuttiness of the fall acorn crop  or the light minerality of spring chickweed, crimson clover, and young blackberry shoots in my pork than to eat a bland, white, flavorless cut of meat, in which the only story I can know is that the production did not honor the animal, the soil, the terrain, or the climate.

Maybe it's not important to know all the science-y stuff to appreciate terroir. But I believe the pleasure of eating is made more full, more delightful, by tasting the thick sweet leaves in winter, and the bitter spicy leaves of spring, to experience the full range of flavors, of the nutrition packed within and the whole spectrum of flavors the world has to offer us. 

But I won't go on forever, instead I will leave you with the idea that terroir and the pursuit of flavor, should not be confined to the world of wine, instead we should use that idea to expand our understanding of vegetables and meats too. The world is so delicious and the varied soils, terrains, and climates offer so many iterations of all of our favorite foods.

We want you to join us in the journey of exploring the world of flavor that is pastured tastes better (PTB Farm).

sarah campbell