It reminded me of an essay that I wrote several years ago. I dug it out of the archives. To my surprise, with just a bit of polishing, it still feels fresh today. Presented here for your consideration.
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I believe that most Americans are afraid of food. It makes you fat, gives you cancer, mad cow disease, heart burn, acne, and bad breath. It takes time, effort, energy and money. If you are unfortunate enough to be saddled with the responsibility of preparing food, your lot is even worse; should you fail to make food which is healthy, nutritious, delicious, and worthy of Martha Stewart, then your family won’t love you and you will become a social outcast. Though some Americans truly love food, for the rest the Food Network’s purpose is to teach them enough to look savvy on a first date.
By contrast, for the French, adoration of food is part of their cultural identity. The notion of Appelation d’Origine Controlle, aka "AOC" (a system of regulations that control the places where foods are grown and the methods used to produce them,) speaks to the importance of food in France. That it matters precisely where an ingredient came from, and the method by which it was produced, is quintessentially French. Certainly many Americans care that foods taste good, but few give a damn if their goat cheese is Montrachet, Bucheron or Banon, and they don’t care if it comes from Oregon, Texas, France, Germany or Bulgaria. For Frenchmen, Roquefort is not just another blue cheese - it matters that it came from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and that it was aged in a particular way. The flavor of the Midi-Pyrénées is in the soil, in the grass, in the sheep, in the unique bacteria of the aging caves, and therefore in the cheese. This is not some academic distinction flaunted by 3-star chefs; it is a matter of significance to the man in the street.
I had the opportunity to experience this attitude first hand at the cheese caves of Aleosse in Paris. It is said that in France you can eat a different cheese each day of the year. If you care to try, there’s no better place to go than Aleosse. There, if you are lucky enough to get an invitation, owner Philippe Aleosse will proudly show off the cheeses that he cures with care and devotion. Scouring France, Switzerland and Spain he acquires the best of the best of fresh cheeses from artisanal farmers. He then ages them – rotating them, spraying them with water or alcohol, and cultivating specific molds on their surfaces. M. Aleosse dotes over his charges, pressing with thumb and forefinger to test for the moment of perfect ripeness. His deep commitment to the ultimate in cheese is infectious; after a day in his caves the notion that the makers of Sainte-Maure de Touraine wrap their cheese around a laser engraved straw to protect their provenance no longer sounds absurd.
In French there is a term, “terroir,” which simply has no true equivalent in English. Terroir embodies the sense that a place imparts its own unique flavor to a food, beverage, or ingredient. It is a combination of the makeup of the soil, the altitude, the timing of sun and rain, the insects and animals, and every other micro-climactic aspect that varies from place to place.
To most Americans such an idea is entirely alien. Sure, you can’t grow oranges in Boston, Maple syrup comes from Vermont not Mexico, and the wines of Napa Valley are considered to be particularly good, but that is as far as most Americans go in thinking about the sources of their food. In France it is important that at a particular altitude on a particular mountain in the Pyrenees, there is a combination of rain and sun that makes a particular type of grass grow in a particular way. The cows that eat this grass impart a unique flavor to their milk, resulting in a unique cheese. The cheese expresses its terroir. It embodies the place and is of the place. It is a flavor that cannot be simulated in the laboratories of New Jersey’s scent factories. Would 21st century homogenized America be improved by the addition of the word terroir to our dictionaries?
I never fully appreciated the meaning of terroir until I visited the vineyards of Chateau Beaucastel in the southern Rhone river valley. Theirs is a craft of subtlety, using up to 13 different varieties of grapes to make their wine, some in very small amounts. To the vintners of Beaucastel the addition of a grape that adds a slight hint of acid might offset some element of sweetness and thus improve complexity. A tiny note of muskiness might combine with other flavors to provide roundness in the mouth. Even flavors that might be considered off or unpleasant on their own are combined to create a greater whole. In this way Chateau Beaucastel is able to create wines that match and compliment food in extraordinary ways.
In addition to the peculiarities of different grape varietals, it is terroir, the unique microclimate of their region, which gives the grapes of Beaucastel special qualities. The land upon which Beaucastel rests is composed of a thin layer of soil on top of fast draining stones. This forces the roots of the grape vines to hunt for water and nutrients, torturing them into producing small numbers of highly concentrated grapes. These aren’t just any stones, they are crescent shaped; convex on top, concave underneath. They are a glacial moraine further shaped by eons of weather. As they rest, water is able to flow downward, pausing to drip along the edges of the stones. This allows the roots of the vines to capture just a little water before it flows away. Were the stones disturbed and turned upside down, each would become a cup, the vines would not have to struggle for their water, and the grapes would not be the same. Though Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa produce great wines, they cannot make Beaucastel. It must come from this one spot.
It is no wonder that America invented fast food. The common conception is that fast food is driven by Americans’ obsession with speed, but I believe there may be a deeper element at work: fast food allows Americans to get done with the onerous task of eating as quickly as possible. When food becomes simply fuel, then speed of delivery and consumption is the primary objective. Carnation Instant Breakfast®, PowerBars®, and McDonalds™ all provide ways to consume fuel without truly having to eat. Even without the cost, the notion of a four and a half hour lunch at La Maison de Marc Veyrat is appalling to Americans, whereas the French understand that it is a magnificent experience.
Yet according to Bernard Vigier, a cheese vendor and food connoisseur that I met in the town of Carpentras, things are changing on both sides of the Atlantic. M. Vigier is concerned that the youth of France are forgetting their traditions. He says that the older population continues to see cuisine as an integral part of life, but the youth are allowing their cultural inheritance to fall away. As the old Frenchmen die off, he says, they are replaced by people without a connection to tradition, terroir, and flavor. Meanwhile, he believes that young Americans are gaining an appreciation for fine cuisine, subtlety and discernment.
Cheese is not the only fattening, high-cholesterol food consumed in France. It is said that the people of Gascony, eat exceptional amounts of butter, foie gras, and other fatty foods. Surprisingly, their mortality rates from heart disease are very low. This is the so-called “French Paradox.” Many theories have been put forth to explain this; low stress, the presence of olive oil in the diet, consumption of fish containing Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants present in red wine, and so forth. Meanwhile, America leads the world in obesity, cancer and heart disease.
Perhaps there is an unexpected answer to this paradox. Perhaps it is neither low-stress nor the presence of particular nutrients that keeps the Gascons healthy. Maybe it is simply that to these people, food is a wonderful thing that gives them nutrition and pleasure, sustaining life. To the American diner, food is toxic, so they turn it into poison in their bodies. Perhaps if Bernard Vigier is right, someday all Americans might make peace with their meals and so live happier, healthier lives. One can only hope.