Taking the Terror Out of
By Erin M. Hartshorn
Copyright © 2008 by Erin M. Hartshorn, All Rights Reserved
In the classic struggle of
"us against them," everything matters--whether our kids are smarter, our
men more beautiful, our women stronger, our weather better (or ever so
much worse)--but above all else, our food is tasty, unique, and not to
be compared with that of those upstarts from that town over the ridge!
What could they possibly know of the proper spices for spring runt
sausage, after all? True, Great-Aunt Bertha's second-to-youngest
daughter married into one of their families, but she wouldn't
have told them the secret. Besides, even if she was old enough for her
Gran to have told her about green garlic, the bulbs here are sweeter
with not as much sulfur to them.
That is the mystery at the
heart of terroir--the influence of a particular locale on the food and
drink that is created there. Terroir encompasses every local condition
from the climate and microclimates to the minerals of the soil to the
topography of the land to the experience of the person creating the
Terroir is the short answer
to why champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France. The
chalk hills there, the weather patterns, the accumulated knowledge
handed down in a winery over hundreds of years cannot be reproduced
elsewhere. The méthode champenoise can be, and is, followed
elsewhere. But a cava from Spain is not identical to a champagne. And a
sparkling wine from California, though it may be every bit as good as
Dom Pérignon, has its own unique properties. (Whether the average
consumer can distinguish them is different story.)
Similarly, barbera grapes
may grow in the Sierra foothills of California because the climate is
right for them, but the mineral content is different from the hills of
Asti in Italy. Accordingly, barbera d'Asti tends to be more acidic than
Although the word terroir
isn't generally applied to other comestibles, the concept certainly is.
Look at the hoopla surrounding Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee or Kona
coffee. If you look at the Web site of a specialty purveyor, such as
Peet's Coffee & Tea, you may find a banner for "Tanzania Kilimanjaro" or
"Panama Esmeralda Geisha" ("grown on just one small block, at the
highest altitude of Hacienda La Esmeralda, in the Boquete region of
Panama"); teas can be purchased by preparation method (white, green,
oolong, black) or by place of origin (China, India, Sri Lanka).
Descriptions of tea mention altitude, dryness, wind, leaf size, how many
estates the tea is available from, leaf-rolling methods--the same ideas
that go into wine's terroir.
Foods have local variants as
well. Chocolate, being a plant product, is subject to all the same
factors that grapes, tea, and coffee are. "Single origin chocolate"
takes advantage of this fact to showcase regional differences in
flavors. The Nibble has a page up on the flavors of varietal chocolate:
http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/flavors-2.asp Of course,
if you're happy with a bar of Hershey's milk chocolate, you probably
don't care whether your chocolate has woodiness or notes of molasses and
vanilla. There are, however, those who do care--they care about the
percentage of cocoa, where it was grown, whether it's fair trade (not
that that affects flavor), whether it's dark chocolate or milk. And yes,
milk chocolate is available in varietals as well.
Empire apples; Maui, Walla
Walla, and Vidalia onions; and Kobe beef are all other examples of local
influence on flavor.
What of other living
organisms, such as bacteria or yeast? Three words for you: San Francisco
sourdough. Or if you prefer, New York bagel. The water, the yeast, the
locally available flours--those are what make regional breads so
Or look at molds. Many
cheeses are named for where they were first made--Cheddar, Brie,
Stilton, Monterey jack. Today in the supermarket, you can buy cheddar
cheese that comes from elsewhere--but does cheddar taste the same if
it's from New York, Wisconsin, or California? The flavor of cheese
depends on the milk, which depends in turn on what the animals (cows,
sheep, or goats) ate. In this day of homogenized, ultra-pasteurized
milk, we may not all notice the difference in our skim if we change
states, but the milk isn't treated before the cheese is made and the
How do you use this
information in your story?
Your heroine isn't *just*
having red wine with her dinner, or even merlot--she is having the last
bottle laid down by her grandfather before the fire claimed all the
vines on the southern hills. It'll be another ten years before this
year's carefully cloned rootstock shows whether the additional carbon
ruined the terroir.
Or your hero is undercover
for his king in a foreign land, and he's having trouble adjusting to the
inexplicably sweet onions. Will his reaction to a traditional dish
expose him to the secret police?
Is it worth the exorbitant
tariffs to import true Earth champagne to the capital of the new colony
planet? Or will they make do with vodka from the potatoes that grow
readily in the planet's rocky soil? Or will a smuggler come along
offering a better deal on the champagne if the new government turns a
blind eye to his other activities?
Suppose that a scientist has
spliced part of the Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) genome into a
line of grapes. Ideal conditions for the fungal growth are no longer
necessary--diminishing the effect of terroir, and furor erupts in the
wine world over those who want this new strain for themselves and others
who want to destroy it at all cost.
Dropping in local food and
drink is easy, but if you really want to add flavor, make the
differences matter, to both the characters and the plot.