Saturday, November 5, 2016

The concept of terroir in 18th-Century France: Part I, a Phoenix rising from the ashes

The concept of terroir stumbled into the 18th century battered and bruised and looking for someplace to hide; the 17th century had delivered some devastating body blows. According to Thomas Parker (Tasting French Terroir), at the beginning of the 18th century, "... the influence of terroir was considered mostly in relation to those lacking autonomy of intellect, possessing imperfect language, or having deportment sullied by the provinces ..." In this post I examine the fortunes of the concept during the pre-Revolutionary period, again drawing heavily on Parker's work.

Terroir began its long climb out of purgatory with the 1719 publication of Jean-Baptiste DuBos’ Réflexions critiques sur la péinture. In his writings, DuBos postulated a climate-based identity; that is, the characteristics of a people were determined by their resident climate. And that climate was itself acted upon and determined by the native soils. Further, if a person, or plant, were to be moved to a new environment, that entity would undergo transformations resulting from the influences of the new environment.

Jean-Baptiste DuBos
Public Domain,

DuBos used this reasoning to stoke nationalism in that, he said, French temperament and products were highly desirable and were a result of France’s temperate climate. According to Parker, in contrast to where things stood at the beginning of the century, “… in DuBos there is a general democratization and terroir appears without explicitly derisive connotations.” So, for the first time in a while, we see the word terroir used without the writer metaphorically holding his nose.

Baron Montesquieu, in his De l’esprit des loix (1748), built on DuBos’ work by specifying that the French national character was attributable to marl, the predominant soil in Champagne. This is a significant step, moving from a shaming of things associated with the earth to a soil type now being acclaimed as the key determinant of the national character.

Baron Montesquieu. Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia
The next major step in the rehabilitation of terroir was the effort of Menon, a famed cookbook author, to redefine the role and standing of a skilled chef. He proposed that, although terroir could have some deleterious effects on food, a skilled chef would be able to remove the "offending components." In his La Science du mâitre d'hotel cuisiniere (1749), he proposed methodologies to (i) search out terroir in foods and (ii) neutralize any pernicious effects it could have on the refined connoisseur (Parker).

Writing in the foreword of Menon's book, Lauréault de Foncemagne transfers the previously mentioned DuBos' theories directly into the world of food and cooking and proposes that exotic foods -- that is, food from unfamiliar territories -- can be consumed in order to compensate for climate-induced deficiencies.

For terroir and the cooking profession then, a symbiotic relationship had developed: "... as terroir's status slowly changed, it helped to expand and legitimize the profession of the 18th-century chef in new ways. Terroir created the need for a specialist who could transfer the dangerous and lowly terrestrial components, using art and science to marry flavors and create a safe, enjoyable culinary experience." So the chef was elevated because he could remove the deleterious elements from terroir and terroir was now not so dangerous because it could be controlled by that skilled chef in your employ.

The individuals mentioned in the foregoing contributed significantly to the 18th century revitalization of the concept of terroir but those efforts are surpassed by the work of Rousseau in the decades leading up to the revolution.

By Maurice Quentin de La Tour - Unknown,
Public Domain,

According to Parker, Rousseau:
  • Promoted the superiority of terroir to the reading public as well as well-known historical figures such as Robespierre and Marie-Antoinette
  • Kindled a spirit of rural renewal in his readers by glamorizing provincial living
  • Reinforced a positive role for terroir in culinary culture.
"... an unmistakeable transformation in culinary culture with respect to terroir took place in the eighteenth century and some of that change undoubtedly owes to Rousseau's influence (Parker)."

I will complete the 18th-century resurgence of the concept of terroir in my next post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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