Terroir.

The AHD defines terroir as “1. The aggregate characteristics of the environment in which a food or wine is produced, including regional and local climate, soil, and topography. 2. The flavor imparted to a food or wine by such characteristics” (it’s from Vulgar Latin *terratōrium, alteration of Latin territōrium, territory); it’s pretty much a foodie term, but a useful one, and I’ve been familiar with it for many years. I was thus interested to learn from William Doyle’s TLS review of Thomas Parker’s Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea that “the regional variety of wine and food produced in France was clearly recognized as long ago as the sixteenth century, and positively celebrated in the earthy writings of Rabelais” (I pause to note the appositeness in this context of “earthy”); Olivier de Serres‘s “instantly popular” Le Théâtre de l’agriculture (1600) used the term frequently. But “in the seventeenth century it ceased to be anything to celebrate”:

Dictionaries of the time began to define the term as an undesirable taint, something disagreeable to good taste and polite society. In a kingdom whose values were increasingly dictated by metropolitan and courtly high society, the idea of terroir signified all that was uncouth and provincial. The best food and wine should have no hint of strong regional character, any more than the best people sounded or behaved like provincials.

The term was revived by Rousseau and was looked at askance by the rationalizing, centralizing Revolution; “What everybody agreed on was the superiority of French terroir to anywhere else.”

The review ends with a question as to whether the concept is in fact distinctively French: “Was the term terroir (which has no precise English equivalent) uniquely French, or could some similar notion be found in the culture of other European countries?” I’m sure the answer is “yes and no,” just as with hygge and sisu and all the other supposedly untranslatable terms.

Comments

  1. My sister in Montreal (where “terroir” can sometimes carry similar valence to American “artisanal”, both ways) likes to say “le fromage [etc.] du tiroir” [= cheese from the drawer] as a bit of a send-up.

  2. Ha!

  3. There is, of course an English word for terroir, namely terroir.

    ~~ throws down gauntlet ~~

  4. Hey, you’ll get no argument from me. But I remember people arguing that samovar wasn’t an English word.

  5. Well terroir in French is just a generic word for “soil, land”, and the foodie meaning is a specialized extension, right? So you could just extend “terrain/territory” for the specialized food meaning, and make it stick. Except importing a cognate for the specialized meaning is precisely the most useful kind of cognate borrowing, so kudos to English for having distinct words for terrain and terroir.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Terroir may have started as a generic word but even without the specific meaning related to food and drink it does not quite mean “terrain/territory”. The last two are neutral descriptive words, but terroir has a more emotional connotation of love and appreciation for all aspects of a rural area, its way of life and its products. I don’t know whether terroir as used in English encompasses all those aspects.

  7. Hey, you’ll get no argument from me. But I remember people arguing that samovar wasn’t an English word.

    Merriam-Webster includes it, but all of their examples have it in italics. OED has some non-italicized examples, but also says “Not fully naturalized in English.” (But neither includes Marie-Lucie’s “connotation of love and appreciation for all aspects of a rural area”—it seems that English terroir is strictly functional-materialistic.)

    The story told by the OED is more interesting than I expected, actually. Terroir first appeared as a word just meaning “territory” (“Aristotil..lerned of Plato in a place whiche was called Lopedimie in the terroyre of Athenes.” – a1460), then meaning “soil” (“The terroir or soil is gentle, copious and cheerfull.” – 1653). Their first example of the winemaking sense is from the 19th century, and they describe this usage as “probably partly showing a reborrowing of the French word, and partly short for goût de terroir.” Their cites for the latter date from the late 18th century.

  8. Terroir may have started as a generic word but even without the specific meaning related to food and drink it does not quite mean “terrain/territory”. The last two are neutral descriptive words, but terroir has a more emotional connotation of love and appreciation for all aspects of a rural area, its way of life and its products.

    The Spanish equivalent would be terruño, as distinct from terreno or territorio. (In the evaluative sense, I suppose the relationship is analogous to that between AmE ’hood or BrE manor and the neutral neighbourhood.)

    I’m surprised to find that Spaniards have occasionally used terruño for the foodie term, though in my experience the more common choice is terroir (used as a Fremdwort and usually set in italics).

  9. Marie-Lucie’s “connotation of love and appreciation for all aspects of a rural area” is exactly how I understand it from a wine-drinker’s bibulous perspective.. (link from my name).
    Drawing with a wide and cartoonish brush, new world wines are frequently made to emphasize the varietal characteristics, where the old world tends to emphasize the ‘love and appreciation’ of the area, Chateauneuf-du-Pape with its 18 varietals by way of example.

  10. Heh. I’m reading Marc Raeff’s Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia and just got to this sentence, on p. 30 (discussing the seventeenth century): “Nor did the system of inheritance and the serviceman’s dependence on the Tsar’s discretion for land grants give the nobleman much of a feeling of being tied to his terroir, a feeling that played sch an important role in the life and outlook of the Western nobleman.”

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