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A sense of origin? Sorbonne lectures of the HEG program

Last year, I met two men from Switzerland who were interested in wine. We spoke comfortably in English until one of them wanted to discuss terroir when he paused, turned to the other to speak in French, and then shook his head saying he was unsure how to explain terroir in English. There is no English equivalent.


In making cheese, the relationship between animal and environment, and the method by which milk is made into cheese are important, as is the role of man. Therefore, the animal species (cow or goat), the breed (Holstein or Montbéliard), the genetics and physiology (variations within a breed and health), the feed (grass, hay or pasture), the terrain (hilly  or plateau), the season (spring or winter), and the variables involved in making cheese, together determine the nature of the cheese.  The combination of all these parameters that results in a unique product, is simply referred to as terroir. If the sensory quality of the cheese is exceptional, the terroir can be certified as protected designation of origin (PDO), or in other words prevents people outside the terroir from using the same name. So, Brie de Meaux can only refer to cheese made in the Ile-de-France, Comté from the Franche-Comté, Reblochon from the Savoie, and so on.


From lecture hall to lunch at the faculty club, the concept of terroir and PDO were the subject of two classes in the HEG program raising questions such as variation in parameters that determine terroir; complexities associated with the evolving nature of the term (for instance the role of culture and history); the influential role of microflora (microorganisms) in the environment and milk (raw milk or unpasteurized cheeses are sought after in France); what should or shouldn’t be given PDO status; the timing of applying for PDO status (the late receipt of PDO status for Camembert cheese resulted in many non-PDO Camemberts in the market); the difference between copyright and terroir; and also the feelings of cows as one student asked.

For a country that uses the word terroir to mean so much, France uses it widely and effectively in many different contexts to include not just the famous example of wine but also of fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood and in many instances a traditional dish, so much so, in a conversation describing the uniqueness of a particular food or food product the use of terroir is quite powerful. A matter-of-fact conversation with a jam-maker in the north-east of France, immediately evoked a reflective smile, when I said I was visiting to experience the terroir.

She was born and brought up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and then moved to the state of Tamil Nadu after marriage where she spends the rest of her life, but never did she have to be reminded to describe the fertile soil of her hometown, the quality of produce, the delicious dishes made with them or the simple nature of people and their mannerisms that accompanied meals – my grandmother was probably referring to terroir, she just did not use the word.


Relationships between ruminant management and sensory characteristics of cheeses: a review. Coulon JB et al Lait 84 (2004) 221-241 



12 thoughts on “A sense of origin? Sorbonne lectures of the HEG program

  1. Sudha

    Now I have to learn to pronounce "terroir" correctly and will think of your article when I have mutton pepper fry, with my grandmother's old recipe from Kanchi, pepper from Tellicherry and Halal meat from Flushing, NY. What a beautiful way to bring time, place and people together around my kitchen table. Thank you!!!


    You have got me thinking alright.Now it make more sense why my father insisted on getting our yearly quota of rice, our staple food from Mahabalipuram our paternal hometown. He insisted the soil,water,natural manure,even the drying process of the paddy was responsible for the 'swaad' of the rice. That was terroir indeed. How beautifully you have given a different dimension to the word terroir . Well done. Your writing is getting more and more interesting and thought provoking.

  3. Ravi Sankar

    We are all a product of our environment. It applies to humans as well as as to plants and animals. As you have beautifully enunciated, fruits, vegetables, cheeses. fish and meat all will vary based on the region they come from and if we are discerning we can really enjoy the variety. Thanks for the explaining Terrior.

    BTW, I was told that this applies to Bagels (and Whisky) as it is said that bagels and pizza in Brooklyn are unique becasue of the quality of the water. In fact there is a company called the Brooklyn Water Bagel company that claims its quality of bagels is based on the proprietory process of converting local water to mirror the properties of Brooklyn city water!!!! For good whisky of course you supposedly need water from the Scottish Fens.

    Keep writing

    1. Bala

      Thank you. I agree, there is a definite relationship between man and environment, one that I like to think about.

      Now, I have a new and specific reason to taste a Brooklyn bagel. The specificity of water, like you mentioned reminded me of Scottish whiskey, and also, of Belgian trappist ale.


    It was an interesting and enlightening article from New York Times. More scientific explanation to the word terroir . I will love to go with Dr. Mills's thought process in which he states 'Many people don’t want this figured out,because it demystifies the wonderful mystery of wine.”

    1. Bala

      I think the NYT article discusses an interesting role for microbes in determining terroir effects of wine. I believe one can taste differences in wine based on terroir - I have, as have many other people. But, I do not know the chemical or molecular basis of these differences.

  5. Y.Gopalakrishnan

    India which is so diverse has many such age old proven systems. It is only that they are not well researched and documented for people to practice. Organic farming is one great area were such systems can be rigorously followed.

    1. Bala

      I agree, and hope it is only a matter of time before we see more research and practice of the nature you describe.


I look forward to reading your thoughts...

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