Wednesday wordphile: terroir
Foodies are familiar with the term “terroir” especially as it relates to wine, coffee, tea, olive oil, and even cheese. The term comes from the French and literally means “land.” The idea here is that the special physical characteristics of the place where an agricultural item is grown affect the way it tastes. These unique environments provide the food with a “sense of place” that is different from the same food grown in a different region.
As varietal honeys began to take their place in gourmet kitchens around the world, more and more began to be labeled with their terroir. For example, the label on a bottle of cat claw honey (Acacia greggii) may read something like, “produced in the poor, dry soils along southern Arizona’s desert arroyos.” Presumably the cat claw grown along an Arizona desert arroyo (a dry creek bed or wash) will produce a slightly different flavor of nectar than the cat claw grown, say, along a California desert arroyo.
The physical characteristics of a growing area may include the climate, rainfall pattern, soil type, topography, and geology. The soil is particularly important because each local soil contains different minerals, retains different amounts of moisture, has a different pH, and supports different microorganisms. All of these characteristics affect the plant communities–the type and number of plants that will grow in the immediate area–as well as the flavors of those plants. The surrounding community of plants can greatly affect the taste of honey, depending on how much of their nectar makes its way into the varietal honey.
All of this helps to explain why one jar of honey can taste very different from another, even when it’s derived from the same species of flower. It’s one of many factors that give varietal honeys their charm, and one of the reasons they command a higher price than blended honeys of multiple origin.