A Taste of Place

The term terroir is oft-used in the wine industry to describe the elements of a place that contribute to the taste of a wine. That is, the geography, climate, and soil and how these elements affect and interact with the grapes that grow in that particularly area. As some put it it, terroir is “the taste of a place.” The term has also been broadened to incorporate local traditions, reflecting the cultural approaches to viticulture.

In the last several years, this term has also begun entering the nomenclature used in other food industries. In the cheese industry,  it has been used to describe the affect that geography, climate, soil, type of vegetation, and breeds of animals  have on the taste of a type of cheese. Though this term is sometimes saved for farmstead cheeses, characteristics of cheeses produced from the milk of local dairy farms may also be considered terroir.

Although the methods used to produce a cheese will inevitably vary from one producer to the next, ultimately it is the taste and quality of the milk that goes into the cheese that will influence what connoisseurs have dubbed terroir. For example, cows that graze at a higher elevation will produce milk with different characteristics than milk produced from cows that graze at lower elevations, due to the variance in the vegetation. In addition, variances in cultural practices, such as when cows are let out to graze and whether farmers use silage (fermented grass) in a cow’s diet affect the resulting taste and quality of the milk.

In addition, the term terroir can also convey a what some call a “mystical” and unquantifiable element of “a sense of place.” To me, this aspect of the term correlates strongly to the memory of a taste of a place. There is no substitution for tasting a wine or food with the sensory experience that comes with that particular place, from the scent in the air to the angle of the sun, the colors of the landscape, and the tone of the native tongue. These are cues that cannot be quantified, labeled, or conveyed in simple tasting notes, but can impart a taste as invisible and as strong as any aroma.

The Allgäu region of Bavaria, which supplies the milk that goes into Käserei Champignon cheese, has a long tradition of dairy farming, which is unsurprising when you see the landscape. The grass is vibrantly green and grows so well that it can be cut five times a year (most climates only produce 3 cuttings). The milk comes from 800 local family farms, none of which use silage in feed for their cows. Instead, cut grass is specially dried to extend through the coldest months of the years. The cows are playful and friendly, and given room to graze (a hectare for every two cows). Dairy farmers of this region, as well as consumers, take a special pride in their milk and cheese.

Though the term terroir derives from the French word for “land,” there is much more to the taste of a cheese than what is imparted by the physical environment. The taste of place involves the people as much as the land. Those who produce a cheese and those who appreciate its flavors invariably shape its quality.