by Fiona Ferbrache
‘Terroir’ is not a word to be found in my Dictionary of Human Geography, but geographer Tim Unwin (2012) locates the notion of terroir “at the heart of Geography”. While this French word is frequently used to talk about food and wine production, it can also be linked to a sense of place and other key geographical ideas.
A recent article from The New York Times entitled ‘Vive le Terroir’ reappeared in the International Herald Tribune as ‘A sense of place that defies globalization’. The narrative introduces a family who reside in the rural village of Castelnau de Montmiral, South West France. It explains the family’s deep and emotional connection to the land (Jérôme is a farmer), to the extent that one “knows every inch, every stone, and which parcels are for what”. It describes terroir.
The article defines terroir as a concept “almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity – of roots, and home – in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere”. The elements of soil, weather and region are important here, but the quotation also captures notions that are keenly geographical: roots and home (dwelling perhaps), as well as authenticity and genuineness. The ideas also capture a sense of knowing a place through practice and performance, as well as debates that examine local and global geographies of food production and consumption.
This latter theme ties in well with an article by Bathfield, Gasselin, López-Ridaura and Vandame (2013), exploring impacts of globalisation on small-scale coffee and honey producers in Guatemala. Their paper examines, in particular, how smallholders responded to market shocks during a period of coffee crisis. It is the research methodology that is of particular interest, in relation to the newspaper article above, for Bathfield et al. contribute to a growing field of studies at the level of the smallholder household (SHh) by exploring what unfolds within families. The methods, for example, include family life histories; a technique that captures the individual emotional links and sense of identity between the smallholders and the land.
While it is widely understood that rural smallholders are increasingly connected to international markets (Bathfield et al. p.1), there are those families, such as the newspaper’s example, for whom the essence of particular local knowledge (local at the scale of an inch, or a stone), is something to value, cherish and pass on to future generations. Terroir is central to the continuation of their way of life. The idea of terroir then, is not all that distant from geographical concepts, and may be useful as a tool for capturing a notion more deeply in qualitative or ethnographic research at the micro-level.
A sense of place that defies globalization. International Herald Tribune 02 September 2013. (also available online: Vive le Terroir The New York Times. 31 August 2013)
Bathfield, B., Gasselin, P., López-Ridaura, S. & Vandame, R. 2013 A flexibility framework to understand the adaptation of small coffee and honey producers facing market shocks. The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12004
Unwin, T. 2012. Terroir: at the heart of Geography, in Dougherty, P. (ed.) The Geography of Wine: Regions, Terroir and Techniques. Amsterdam: Springer pp.37-48