by Steven Allison
The monsoon jungles of Kerala provide the perfect environment for black pepper to mature. The pepper vine grows best at elevation with frequent rain and plenty of tree trunks to wrap its near 10 metre length around. After the nourishing monsoon comes a dry season when growers meticulously lay out its berries under the sun until they turn black, and spicy, and good. Today, black pepper is produced in Vietnam and elsewhere, but none secure the same prices as Keralite appellations, like Malabar and Tellicherry. The greatest attempts of empires, corporations, and botanists have failed to devise a better way to produce great black pepper other than just leaving it be.
This is the effect of terroir, or the unique properties of a region that make it particularly suitable for the production of a superior foodstuff. Thus it is recognized around the world, and codified legally, that champagne comes from the Champagne growing region of France, that Parmesan can only be made around Parma, or that true cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka. Of course delicious sparkling white wines, hard salted cheeses, and cinnamons are produced elsewhere, but we endow special status, respect, and price, to these products, and tend to believe in their superiority.
It is odd that terroirs, so meticulously delineated cartographically (the Champagne region, for example, comprises 84,000 acres), are so hard to define linguistically. Numerous legal classifications, from France’s appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) to the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) accord special status to geographical units in food production. But how specific the appellation goes in naming a product for its place is a subject of wild debate. Methods must be accounted for, and facilities, and processes, and ever-contentious farming techniques.
The definition of terroir has real consequences. The 1911 Champagne Riots were a result of the French government’s first AOC law, which only specified where the wine had to be produced, not where the grapes had to be grown. Focusing only on the human-delineated geography, and not the land itself, led to the law’s misuse and began its long history of revision.
Millennia of experience have taught us that optimizing a food around an ecosystem- or is it the other way around- can yield fantastic results, both desired and horrific. Somewhere amid the synergy between cultivator, cultivated, and climate lies the gustatory factor that separates these regions from others.
Few foodstuffs have undergone as many changes in terroir as spices. While much of modern debate on terroir surrounds wine and cheese, spices have experienced varied, even violent, upheavals in the definition of their optimum growing climate and processing method. Some of the most ancient spice terroirs remain unequaled in both volume and excellence, while recent upstarts are reshaping the landscape in perhaps the greatest upheaval in culinary history.
Flying high above the capitol building in St. George is the Grenadian flag. The green, red and yellow design is adorned by a small nutmeg, encased in its mace, a symbol of the island’s prosperity. Although no spices, save a relative of allspice, grew on the island 400 years ago, it now accounts for a great deal of the world’s nutmeg as well as clove, allspice, and ginger. Absconded there by the British in 1843, nutmeg quickly flourished. So established was the cash crop that it remains an economic staple long after independence.
Nutmeg is native to the tiny Banda Islands, part of the Moluccas in southeastern Indonesia. For millennia they were known as the Spice Islands, the only viable terroir for nutmeg, mace and cloves. So small an area, only 180 km2, being so renowned in the ancient world is unheard of outside of the greatest cities. In this way, the Spice Islands stand aside Babylon and Rome in terms of fame per square kilometre.
Pierre Poivre lay recuperating in the Dutch colony of Batavia, in the Spice Islands, having just lost his arm in a 1745 naval battle with the British. At that time, nutmeg was under the brutal control of the Dutch and could not be transplanted- it was soaked in lime juice before export to ensure it could not sprout. Yet on Batavia, Poivre was able to walk among row after row of the living plant, and he devised a way to smuggle some out. After decades of covert planning, he obtained a number of samples but none ever took root. The export of living nutmeg would have to await an event like the Napoleonic Wars to finally come to fruition. The British tried Sri Lanka, Singapore, Zanzibar, Grenada and other islands in their madcap quest to redefine nutmeg’s terroir.
This sloppy yet systematic trial-and-error uprooted entire civilizations and redirected the course of countless lives. Nutmeg, mace, cloves, and a host of other spices were wrested, by force, from local producers, and planted in every tropical corner known to Europe, then cultivated, again by force, sometimes within the natural growing conditions of the plant, and sometimes working maniacally against it.
And so the once Arawak island of Grenada unseated an ancient and unmovable terroir and become the modern world’s most beloved producer of nutmeg and mace. Sri Lankan cloves are of the highest quality, and vanilla, once exclusive to the Yucatan Peninsula, flourishes in countless nations. The state of spice terroirs today is at once a world of promising opportunity and an absolute mess.
Terroirs of Tomorrow
Spices from colder climates, like caraway and mustard, have long taken a backseat to more exciting imports from abroad. Recently, however, new culinary identities are being formed around less-well known gastronomic gems of the North. Groups like the Nordic Food Lab and Societé Oringal are approaching native terroirs with the explicit aim of revitalizing lost, local growing regions and traditions, and creating new ones if necessary. These seekers of new terroirs have both centuries of human experience and endless environmental inspiration to draw on as they explore how best to turn plant into product. The results are decades in the making. It seems a complete and comprehensive definition of terroir may never be found—and perhaps that’s a good thing.
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Thank you to Steve for coming on and writing this article for The Hungry Child. Congratulations on the birth of your little girl. May this new chapter of you and your wife's life be filled with the sweetness of small moments.
Article edited by Julie Smits
- Guy, Kolleen (2003) When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.
- Hemphill, Ian (2002) The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook’s Guide. Robert Rose: Toronto.
- Nabhan, Gary Paul (2012) Cumin, Camels and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. University of California Press: Berkeley.
- Trubek, Amy B. (2008) The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. University of California Press: Berkeley.
- Turner, Jack (2004) Spice: The History of a Temptation. Harper Collins: London.
- Hermansen, Mark (2012) “Creating Terroir.” Anthropology of food [Online], S7