Terroir

Appears in

Bistronomy

By Katrina Meynink

Published 2014

You don’t have to spend much time in a fa-aancy restaurant before someone mentions the T word.

As its basic premise, the elusive French concept of terroir (which has no exact translation) is about ‘local’, ‘seasonal’ and understanding the characteristics of a specific place — the climate, sunshine, rain, geology, plants and animals — and the impact these elements will have on the taste of a product. Every decade or so the concept and all that comes with it flares up as a food trend. It becomes the marketing speak de rigueur in kitchens across the world and the very simple, logical connection between locality, seasons and freshness has become beaten, bloodied and commercialised. Suddenly, to fish, hunt, forage and engage with food — to ‘be seasonal’ — has morphed into opportunistic fanfare to plaster on a menu or restaurant website. Menu descriptions proclaim an unbridled commitment to the locavore cause, chefs powering their stoves by the wind of their own monologues, throwing around words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘locality’ in efforts to bolster their foodie credentials. In clamouring to regurgitate such philosophies they do so without the same grasp, reach, ambition and rigour of the greats. Long before them it was Paul Bocuse, Frédy Girardet, Michel Guérard, Marc Veyrat: these were the kings of nouvelle cuisine who were champions of the techniques of classic cooking wedded to rigorously seasonal and local ingredients. Then there is the molecular likes of Ferran Adrià, the purity and seasonality of René Redzepi and the eating-all-the-bits mentality of Fergus Henderson.

But the bistronomy chef just might be terroir’s modern day saviour. It would be remiss to say that the quality of ingredients, where they come from and the way the chefs handle them are not of the utmost importance — they most certainly are — but it is the intersection of these elements in a functional, idealistic and economic way that places the bistronomy concept of terroir on a different plane. Bistronomy is a phenomenal exercise in picking and choosing: an approach that balances the purity of ingredients with economic sensibility and kitchen practicality. It is cost control with efficient service developed by chefs who reveal a rare talent as both cooks and restaurateurs.

Gone are the romantic notions of the horny-handed peasantry tilling the ancient land, pulling figs from the trees for sustenance, or the ideals of petty nationalism, the idea that my apple is better than yours. That obnoxious concept of microsourcing — ‘A farmer found this rare sorrel variety on the south-facing slope of his neighbour’s vineyard and we got the first leaf!’ — and obsession with offering food that you can’t precisely get anywhere else or at any other moment has also been eradicated. Terroir is not a way for a bistronomy chef to demonstrate that he or she is ‘a la minute’, it is exactly what it is. A really basic, fundamental key to good cooking.

‘We are driven by the moment, by singular, perfect ingredients that define our terroir, by things from the forest and the sea: still so wild and ancient, pure and elegant.’

MICHAEL CABALLO

Bistronomy chefs are undeniably tuned into their environment. They know they are only as good as their ingredients and are committed to sourcing produce from the best farms, fishermen and foragers with precise and inventive cooking that allows the quality of the raw materials to reveal itself. They feel a responsibility to the Earth and its bounty and the ideals of terroir feed a natural curiosity for life beyond the kitchen. They’re just not slaves to it. Terroir happens everywhere and nowhere. There is no need for mystique: it is simply fresh product grown locally. That’s it. It is important. Dramatically so, but the chefs are consciously aware that the sanctimony attached to it is often too much and the dining public only care so much about a cook who is turning himself into a boy scout trying to put the insides of an unspoiled rainforest on the plate.

The cooking of the bistronomy chef manages what so few others achieve. It is an expression of a sense of place. The proposition is pretty straightforward: the best ingredients fished, foraged and farmed from as close to the restaurant as possible, in as sustainable a manner as possible, combined with a recession-busting push towards cheaper ingredients, translating the food into something deeper, more sensual and much more robust. At the heart of this food lie flavours that recognise location, and their influences are plainly decipherable: the herbs and vegetables grown on the roof (sorrel and mint, broad beans and radishes), or honey from their own beehives.
There is an emphasis on seasonality and the cult of the ingredient. The dishes that emerge from the bistronomy kitchen are simply a vivid reflection of the season: roots and squashes roasted into toffee-like lusciousness; brassicas with cream for comfort; the earthy perfume of mushrooms; and sorbets of quince, or rosehip and crabapple; or pears in mulled wine with cinnamon cream. Every dish is beautifully presented and allows each ingredient to stand out individually, with all of the individual flavours coming together to form a magnificent whole. There is minimum buggering around, with no heavy sauces to hide behind. The flavours are clean. Precise. And produce is king.

In the world of the bistronomy chef, terroir is the ideal that a perfect sardine is better than a mediocre lobster. One ingredient does not have more value than another; a producer or farmer hasn’t put any less love into farming a potato than collecting caviar. In their approach is an inherent understanding that creativity is at the service of technical ability, which is itself at the service of quality ingredients. They get the best ingredients they can simply because they know that is where great cooking begins.

Bistronomy also brings the concept of terroir back to utility. Ultimately, it comes down to cost. Chances are good, you’ve eaten something that someone found; and that they didn’t pay for it. It is why offcuts, offal and gizzards are celebrated on the bistronomy menu. The approach may be consistent with the bistronomy style of utilising everything but it is also a nod to the thriftiness necessary for small-run restaurants to remain open and profitable. When produce is dictatorial, the menu often changes daily and, unlike at other restaurants, prices change in reflection of the ingredients used. This can reduce costs, helping the chefs to match their creative integrity with customers’ needs: one of the most important and challenging balancing acts faced by any cook.

Some of the chefs call it reverse terroir: everything has to fit a business model to stay afloat. It is a way of saying, these are the items available in the kitchen or garden or farmer’s honesty box, so let’s make a tasty dish out of them; it’s working backwards in a far more pragmatic way. If a chef controls the growing and sourcing process there is easier access, better control over produce and waste, and naturally improved economic control. It’s the realisation (outside of taste) that if there is no business there is no craft and therefore no art. It keeps the local community stable, it’s better for the farmer, and the produce hasn’t travelled as far, so it’s going to taste better.

Terroir is also about connection. The philosophy has always been to bring farmers into the community and cut out the middleman; an almost sociological way of looking at food and showing how food and community are entirely entwined. These restaurants are run by people (mostly the chefs) with skin in the game. They’re about intimacy, connection and relationships; in particular, relationships with suppliers of great produce, which they can translate on the plate to connect with the customer. This understanding of terroir is encapsulated by their innate sense of where the pleasure in food comes from — the thrill and fire of the food — the very thing we come for.

‘Of course I forage. I’d forage a cow if I wasn’t going to get arrested for it. It’s about necessity as much as freshness: if I’m picking it, I’m not paying for it. And that helps me keep the doors open. I just don’t pick it if there’s shit on it.’

DAN PEARSON