Terroir is a trendy word these days, even though it doesn’t apply to high gastronomy.
Although top chefs do make use of regional products, often in exciting ways, our beers, cheeses, syrups, trout or ham are not made for the culinary stars.
Regional products are best discovered in their own area. When you taste an 'escavêche' in Chimay, it’s best to have a Chimay with it. This will give you a different experience of a town or region. It’s also fascinating to discover how such products are made, to track down the origins of 'comté' cheese and how they store those enormous cheese wheels in the endless corridors of 'Fort Les Rousses' in the heart of the Jura.
A similarly exciting experience can be had from vineyards, breweries, farms, small cheese makers, bakeries and so on. To see fishermen discharge their fresh catch in the village of Le Guilvinec, Brittany France, to see pasta prepared in Bologna – all these rituals are lovely.
However, one doesn't need to go to France to discover some superb regional produce. In the Belgian Ardennes, Nassogne is proud to bear the title of 'village de l’élevage'. André Magerotte keeps free-range pigs to make real Ardennes ham.
A Lumberjack fare can be enjoyed at the Fourneau Saint-Michel near Saint-Hubert. Make an appointment at 'Al Pèle', at the entrance of the park. Fernand, the owner, used to chop wood himself. ‘Try our omelette and you’re set up for the day’, he reassures us. We take his advice and tuck into an exceptionally rich one-pot dish.
However, we don’t know our regional products well enough. Jenever, peket or even whisky from Wallonia? These regional products are often hard to track down. Small artisanal producers often have a limited distribution. You will search in vain for 'escavêche' in Antwerp or Brussels. A shopping trip for Wépion strawberries will bear no fruit.
The tolerance of terroir sometimes has a low threshold. If I carry a chunk of Herve cheese, people turn their noses up – the pungent smell is a deterrent. They think eating snails is disgusting. A real geuze from Cantillon in Brussels is too sour, but the brewer will not tolerate any compromise.
Regional produce comes with mouth-watering stories because the producer embodies the product. The Italian wine farmer, often fourth of fifth generation, lives for his wine. You are buying a product that has soul.
You can never feel as close to the larger producers. Intermediaries, commercial structures and strict procedures hinder the contact between the product and the producer.
How do you develop a regional product without losing respect for tradition? If you look around Europe, Trendy St. John’s in London is offering traditional British local cuisine in an old smokery near Smithfield Market. They subscribe to the ‘from nose to tail’ principle and serve ‘all parts of the pig’: snout, trotters, ears… In fact, you are eating the traditional fare of the poor.
'Eataly' is a contemporary formula blessed by the Slow Food movement. It allows you to discover Italian gastronomy in all its diversity. Not to be missed when you’re visiting Milan, Turin, Bologna, New York.
A village near Verona is home to a splendid and surprisingly modern cheese and meat outlet. The cheese is ripening next door and the meats are prepared on-site. You can taste the products in a separate room. The place has a designer look and at the same time, it feels like your local pub. The old 'charcutier' welcomes his friends in the store owned by his son. He is beaming with pride. This story is true. Tradition does not exclude improvisation.
'La Winery', in the French Médoc, marries wine with art. Their cellars contain 2,000 wines from all over the world. Without a price tag. You attend a concert, pop into an art exhibition, visit the restaurant…. Wine is part of all of this. A tasting will result in a personal ‘wine sign’, inspired by the Zodiac, and then you go in search of a bottle that matches your profile. In the garden and vineyards – the owner is also a wine producer – contemporary sculptures are on display.
Be wary of marketing overload, as everything appears to be ‘authentic’ these days. Is something still authentic if you have to have it spelled out? Terroir can be discovered in small professional kitchens or when you visit the market.
Why not promote the integration of terroir with tourism? Or do we not have enough pride in our products? The grass is always greener on the other side. Our Southern neighbours are promoting their wines, but what do we do for our beers? Why not serve a geuze as an aperitif instead of a cava? Esteemed politicians, there’s an idea for your next reception…?
The story of terroir is of the local environment. Take a look at the Serrano ham from the Spanish Extremadura. You can see the pigs roaming freely under the oaks in the dehesa and you can taste a pure product.
In the Belgian Ardennes, I joined my hosts on a walk to collect wild garlic. The son of a Sicilian shepherd offered me wild herbs near the river Maas in Limburg and then proceeded to use them in a delicious salad. One hundred percent natural and a completely honest taste.
In Devon in the UK, the butcher is dissecting a beef carcass with professional skill. We now know what will be on the menu in the hotel that he has been supplying for over 30 years. Only quality counts, is what the owner told him. Good produce will last, seasons and tastes notwithstanding.
Nothing surpasses the taste of cheese, beer, vegetables in season, hand-cut fries prepared in the traditional way, accompanied by a mayonnaise made on the premises. Or potatoes with the rock-chick names of Annabelle or Charlotte?
However, things are far from rosy. Many artisan producers find it hard to market their produce. Strict food regulations prohibit traditional methods. And who will follow in their footsteps? Who is mad enough these days to bake bread using a wood-burning fire? Or to come up with a syrup using fruit from ancient trees? How can you make a living this way?
How can you retain nostalgia, breathe new life into traditional products and make them relevant for today’s consumers? Is your product retro, completely traditional, quasi-retro or just contemporary? Which culinary tradition are we talking about? Are we aiming for ‘foodies’ or targeting all those who enjoy their food? It would help to have clear options.
Ty-Nan was a little-known mineral water from Wales. However, this small company conquered the world with its splendid blue bottle. Their PR strategy? Major global stars were photographed clutching the shimmering designer bottle.
Television series De Smaak van de Keyser and Katarakt drew attention to terroir products from Limburg: Haspengouw fruits and Hasselt gin.
In addition, there are genuine ambassadors: influential people with a healthy dose of credibility. French cheese affineur Philippe Olivier is credited for the popularity of maroilles cheese, long before it was highlighted by the movie Bienvenu chez les Ch’tis Nord-Pas de Calais. ‘Keep on making your cheese and trust me to sell it,’ he said over 30 years ago when terroir was completely out of vogue. Believers win, now and again.
Back to Belgium. Taste an escavèche in Chimay accompanied by a refreshing Chimay. Enjoy Couque de Dinant in Dinant and tuck into Ardennes ham in Nassogne with a Saint-Monon amber beer on the side.
There is no better way to discover regional products than in their own environment. It will give you a very different experience of a city or region. More authentic, more original, more surprising.