The Geography of Flavor a August 22, Washington Post article describes how the French concept of terroir – the idea that the social-ecological context of a food’s production shapes its character – is spreading to the USA.
This idea is being promoted to enhance the profitability of agriculture, the quality of food, and the ecology of food production regions. For example, ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan is part of this movement and worked with the US Slow Food movement to cofound the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Project.
Terroir has the potential to promote a variety of interests in ways that simple origin labeling, as with Vidalia onions, can’t. Farmers believe that the focus on growing conditions and production methods will make their products stand out in a market where low prices reign supreme. Economists see terroir as a device to help restore and protect rural communities; if farmers can earn more money, they’re more likely to stay on the land. Others believe that promoting terroir could help quell fears about food safety.
“We went to the Industrialized Age almost immediately,” Trubek said. “We never had cute little towns with wine-and-cheese traditions. The American experience is all about expansion, to make it bigger, to keep moving.”
Two hundred years later, an unlikely coalition is joining forces to invent American tradition by linking foods to the places they come from and, like American winemakers before them, to romance. Their hope is to offer a counterbalance to the commodity mentality that a strawberry from California is interchangeable with one grown in Florida.
Studies show that the strategy can be profitable. According to a May 2004 survey conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, 56 percent of respondents were willing to pay at least 10 percent more for a place-based food, or “produit du terroir.” The survey also revealed that 65 percent of respondents preferred products that would give farmers a higher percentage of profits than processors, distributors and retailers.
The theory has borne out for fishermen on Lummi Island. Five years ago, they formed a co-op and agreed to catch salmon with reef nets. The contraptions, a modernized version of a Native American invention, consist of an artificial underwater reef made of plastic ribbons. Fishermen stand on tall towers above the water and watch for salmon to swim into the reef, then pull up the nets, spilling the fish into an underwater pen in the boat’s center. The fish are then moved into a separate tank, where their gills are cut and they swim slowly to their deaths.
It sounds cruel, but Lummi Island fishermen claim it’s far less stressful than contemporary methods in which fish die full of adrenaline, struggling for breath on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel. “Reef-net fish have this amazing flavor,” co-op member Ian Kirouac said. “We wanted to identify ourselves with a strong sense of place. There’s a big difference between what we do and what other people do. ”
By advertising their technique and the place of origin, this Lummi Island co-op has been able to command a premium for its fish, both from retailers and restaurant clients. Commodity sockeye salmon sell for about $3.25 a pound wholesale, while Lummi Island’s fetch as much as $5.25 per pound.