Terroir: the land and the roots of humanity
In this first article of a new series, Science from the Field to the Fork, we look at the importance of the terroir in the production of quality fruit and the relevance of this age-old notion. The Earth is our terroir.
Science from the field to the fork
This article, the first in a series, Science from the Field to the Fork, will become a regular feature in the Les vergers Boiron magazine and our newsletter.
This series, supervised by Corinne Tisné, Project Head, Research and Development Les vergers Boiron, is designed to heighten awareness on the link between science, agronomy, growing practices and the techniques used for the transformation of fruits, and how these factors impact gastronomy, pastry-making and mixology.
We are launching this series with a look at the notion of terroir, the very root of the Les vergers Boiron approach, in its search for the best fruits in the world.
N° 1 – The land and roots of humanity
L’UNESCO describes a terroir as “a concept that refers to an area where the collective knowledge amassed from, on the one hand, the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and on the other hand, applied practices, imparts distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area.” It also refers to the application of know-how that produces original and typical tastes, enabling the recognition of the products and services that originate in a region and therefore, the people who inhabit the area.
The French term terroir (practically untranslatable in most languages) has taken on a new dimension in recent years, transforming itself from an apparently limited and traditional geographical indication to become an innovative concept that highlights specific local conditions and human practices in different territories around the world.
Today, this concept contributes to a change in mindset concerning the way we use our resources and has become a central focus point in our understanding of sustainable development, including the recognition of the value and diversity of local agriculture.
The terroir, a fertile field of progress
The terroir, until quite recently, was mainly applied to winemaking, with grape types cultivated according to well-defined practices, in specific regions and even, in some cases, small parcels of land. It obviously included the know-how of the growers and winemakers and the talent they had in selecting and processing the final product. This is why the terroir and associated appellations became criteria for guaranteed quality and regularity, resulting often from centuries of observation, iterations and research.
Over time and with the progress of knowledge, particularly in the scientific study of the soil and the sensorial analysis of wines, this notion has enabled researchers to understand more fully the link between organoleptic properties and the natural and human factors involved. Thus, a wine made from grapes harvested on a particular plot will acquire a distinctive taste and a unique and typical character not found in any other wine, even with the same grape types grown on a neighboring plot with different natural features and processed differently by other people. This is the case, for example for the small parcels, known as climats, in Burgundy, which have now been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Beyond the vineyard
What holds true for wine grapes can also be applied to other fruits, even if one needs to introduce some nuance and differentiate the defining factors. Having said that, it is clear that the organoleptic features of a fruit – its color, taste, aroma and texture – as well as its physical and chemical characteristics – sugar content, acidity level, natural pigmentation and its browning due to oxidization – depend above all on the fruit type or variety.
As is the case for grape types, each fruit offers a number of varieties. For example, there are dozens of raspberry varieties, while apricots offer hundreds of variations and pears, several thousand.
Each of these varieties offers different taste features. For example, certain raspberries offer a distinct woody note, while different mangoes offer shades of their distinctive resinous flavor.
Also, each variety of fruit act differently when processed, reacting to temperature changes or oxidation differently. These factors are particularly critical in the choice of fruits to be used for making purées.
Beyond the variety, certain fruits or fruit types are uniquely adapted to a single terroir or, at best, to a certain number of limited environments where the fruit has historically been cultivated in certain regions of the world. Attempts to grow these fruits outside of their original regions have been unsuccessful. This the case for bergamot, a small citrus, grown in Calabria, Italy, which is the source of 95% of the world production.
Never confuse quality and quantity
On the other hand, most fruit varieties have spread to several continents, having been adapted to the features of different environments. The notion of terroir, in the largest sense of the word, is relevant in the quality of the fruit produced in any particular area. This is the case for pistachios (Pistacia vera), with between 800,000 and a million tons produced very year:
• 400.000 à 450.000 tons in Iran
• 200.000 à 250.000 tons the US
• 100.000 à 125.000 tons in Turkey
• 50.000 à 75.000 tons in China
• 40.000 à 50.000 tons in Syria
Many great pastry and ice cream makers use nothing but Sicilian pistachios (Pistacia vera cultivar Napoletana), mainly produced in the region of Bronte on the volcanic soil of the slopes of Etna. With an average yearly yield of 2,500 to 3,000 tons, this oro verde (green gold) represents less than 0.5% of world production. Grown in compliance with very strict criteria and handpicked when mature (which is not the current practice in most other countries), this variety has been granted the denomination Pistacchio di Bronte, (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) (Protected Appellation of Origin). The most prestigious producers often reserve their harvest to loyal customers, including high-end pastry and ice-cream makers, some of whom actually travel to the harvests, like wine merchants who attend the picking of grapes for vintage wines.
In the same vein, Syracuse lemons (limone di Siracusa in Italian), harvested in the same region as Bronte pistachios, are classified as an Indicazione Geografica Protetta (Protected Geographical Indication). Once again, this lemon appellation complies with strict criteria, offering a high yield of juice and exceptional amounts of essential oils and micronutrients. This variety, femminello syracusain, refers to the outstanding abundance and fertility of the fruit, which yields three harvests every year, with the fruit of each season offering different taste features and colors.