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