By Mark Frano-
I do not spit at wine tastings. I prefer to be taken over by the alcohol as quickly as possible. My palate becomes a dull instrument, but at least I am mercifully released from the bombastic adjectives that savants throw around in hope of describing some vague nuance of the beverage. At times, it seems the goal of the whole thing is to see who can use the most esoteric trope. Upon tasting his first sip of champagne, Dom Perignon urged his companion to “come quickly—I am tasting stars.” I play along sometimes, however, especially after several pours. Just to see who I can impress, I throw out the occasional “cigar box,” “barnyard,” or “eucalyptus.” People usually dive right back into their glasses to determine if they can detect what I supposedly taste.
My favorite tasting buzzword is most definitely terroir. This exemplifies the creative language used to articulate what we are tasting. Derived from the French terre (land), it simply means the taste of place. Climate, soil conditions and general environment contribute characteristics to the grapes. One only needs to sip a glass of white Bordeaux to experience terrorr. White Bordeaux has a pronounced minerality that reflects the gravelly soil that the vines are rooted in.
Terroir undoubtedly accounts for the individuality in other foods, too. Coffee is greatly influenced by its place; so is cheese. Several years ago, on a trip to France’s Languedoc region, my wife and I had an interesting experience involving cheese and terroir. We pillaged the village of Carcassonne in search of some good local eats for a picnic. The boulangerie contributed a yeasty, rustically browned baguette that protruded from our backpack like a periscope. We paraded around proudly with our loaf but had to duck down so as not to snap it off to get in the door of the wine merchant. There we selected a bottle that seemed right for lunch. We proceeded on to the fromagerie.
Upon our entrance the aroma that only a room filled with hundreds of mold-covered cheeses could produce greeted us. There was a perplexing selection of rounds, squares and pyramids. Some were covered in ash or herbs. Others were wrapped in local leaves tied off with strands of grass. The older cheeses sported living coats of blue-green mold. The oldest oozed through their rinds in a state of delicious, liquidy decay.
All were arranged artfully, like jewels in a showcase. We asked for a local chevre that best characterized the season and region. Without much hesitation we selected a small round of young goat cheese and wrapped it up carefully to travel with us.
One last stop for a dried sausage and we were on our way to the castle that dominates Carcassonne. It was a chilly spring day with a biting wind that swept through the village as it fell from the peaks of the Pyrenees. Surely the walls of the fortress would provide refuge. Choosing the castle’s southern side we laid out our spread, but the sun was in Spain. We huddled up against the great wall. We remembered a corkscrew but a brain cramp had left us without glasses, so we took turns swigging from the wine bottle like a couple of drunken invaders from the days of the Visigoths and Huns.
The soft goat cheese spread easily on the baguette. There is something so satisfying about a hand-torn hunk of bread with all its irregularity. We could have carved polite rounds, but slugging the vin rouge with abandon had relaxed our obligation to civility. As we ate the cheese we were both struck by its buttery texture, but something else about it was unlike anything we had ever encountered in a chevre: it tasted distinctly of asparagus. Strange, we thought, but very pleasant.
The picnic went on for hours. We had the best of times. By the time the wine ran out we had made our way through all of the bread and cheese and were left with only a stump of the dried sausage. We packed it all up and stumbled lazily back down to the village to scout out a restaurant for dinner. As we passed the fromagerie we stopped, remembering how remarkable the goat cheese had been. Thinking we perhaps ought to jot down the name of that cheese for future reference, we entered again.
The cheesemonger remembered us and inquired about our afternoon. We were relieved to hear that drinking wine sans glasses was no sin. He was happy to hear that we had enjoyed the cheese and nodded understandingly when we described the uncanny, wonderful taste of asparagus that permeated it. He explained that the cheese was from a farm that also raised asparagus, and at this time of year the goats were encouraged to rummage through the asparagus beds to nibble on the stumps that remained after harvest. The milk took on the characteristics of what and where the goat was foraging. “Terroir,” he explained.
Never before or since have we experienced the taste of place so vividly. The cheese was a profound reminder of how environment can impart unique qualities to food. Given that no two places are exactly the same, we are very lucky eaters indeed.