Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The "personalization" -- and demise -- of the concept of terroir in 17th-Century France

The concept of terroir transited the 16th-17th century divide on the back of Olivier de Serres 1601 book Le Theatre d'Agriculture and its received wisdoms of the primacy of nature and man working within its confines (holistic farming).

Olivier de Serres 
During this period the concept of terroir accrued mostly positive or neutral connotations. Terroir did not leave the 17th century with the same standing with which it had arrived. Let us first trace the evolution of the definition of terroir during the subject century and then ennumerate the forces which led to its decline. As was the case for my post on terroir in the 16th century, this effort draws heavily on Thomas Parker's Tasting Terroir: The History of an Idea.

Before we examine the 17th-century defnitions of terroir, I would like to place the concept into its modern framework so that the reader has a reference point for comparison purposes. Fraser sees the concept being primarily used today among "culinary enthusiasts" to map a food or wine to its specific place of origin. The taste of terroir (goût de terroir) is "the spectrum of appreciable flavors or fragrances created by the unique physiographic constitutionof the plot of land where a given product was grown and produced."

Now let us look at 17th-century definitions (Parker):
  • Nicot's Thrésor de la langue francaise (1606) -- identifies terroir as any specific municipal plot, soil, or land appropriate for one agricultural crop or another.
  • Furtière's Dictionnaire universal (1690) -- land considered according to its nature and qualities, and with respect to agriculture. Continuing on with the definition, however, Furtière switches from terroir as a determinant of planting decisions to terroir as a flavor component and introduces a decidedly negative note into the frame: "One says that a wine has a taste of terroir when it has some disagreeable quality that comes to it from the nature of the terroir where the vine is planted."
  • Charles Pajot's French-Latin dictionary (1694) translated goût de terroir as virus terrenum, meaning "poison or stench of the earth."
  • Furtière's 1701 edition stipulates that terroir "is also used figuratively for a bad habit acquired in one's place of birth. The people from,the provinces cannot rid themselves of a particular vice from the terroir strongly opposed to politeness ... One says that a man smells of the terroir in order to say that he has the deficits one ordinarily attributes to people of his land."
As can be seen in the definitions above, terroir had made its way from being specifically about land -- and being non-contentious -- to being highly personalized and having a decidedly negative bent. How did terroir transform from innocuous to Hillbilly?

According to Parker, the transformation has its roots in the formation of the Academie Francaise in 1635. The goal of this body was identification of, and adherence to, a pure cosmopolitan tongue and, given the nature of Parisian society, that language was associated with the Parisian set; to the detriment of the provinces. So, the people who were most associated with terroir could only contribute polluting elements to the new language.

The search for purity dictated that language impurities be excised. And this was not only restricted to language. According to Parker, "the desire for a pure cosmopolitan tongue ... spread from, speech to taste, affecting trends in cuisine as segments of the population attempted to lose whatever regional patina they themselves might have by pointedly seeking pure and natural foods" (Some of these taste pursuits are pointed out in my post on the lead-up to the Burgundy-Champagne battle which originated in this timeframe.). Terroir was used in this period to indicate adulteration and disorder and its notion as the "scourge of the country bumpkin" was repeatedly reaffirmed during the second half of the century (Parker).

Terroir also suffered as a result of changing agricultural mores in the later 17th century. In de Serres Theatre d'Agriculture, agriculture and terroir were primary. And the agricultural zones, and their inhabitants, were well regarded. A sea change was afoot, however, with the English Garden, a "structure" that could be deployed in "pure" Paris, gaining primacy. And with the rise of the garden, the sense of working within the bounds of nature "withered on the vine."  A garden was not dependent on terroir. The appropriate environment could be created  -- despite nature -- to support the garden's requirements. Design and esthetic became the order of the day with Versailles becoming the quintessential example where one of the world's most beautiful gardens was created in a previously undesirable terroir.

According to Parker,
Rather than allowing for diversity in soil, La Quintinie (Louis XIV's chief gardener) sought out terroir that was perfectly neutral, resembling what he qualified to be good water. Thus, forty years after the first attempts to purify the French language of terroir in Vaugelas, and in the years following Dominique Bouchour's asessment that the best language should be as pure and neutral as water, the same esthetic appeared in the French garden. In each of these iterations, the bodily influence of the earth was seen as a corruption that blemished the immaculacy, essence, and expression of nature's best fruits and vegetables.
At the end of the 17th century then, terroir was a "crass and unruly manifestation of nature in humans and in plants, one that nature was meant to refine, if not altogether expunge."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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