Plastic Bear Honey and the “Terroir” of Industrial Food
It’s August. Welcome to the days of summer honey.
If you are only familiar with the mass-produced product in squeezable plastic bears, you may think that there is just one honey and that it is of uniform golden colour and singular mild flavour. That’s what I used to believe until I started frequenting farmers’ markets and talking to beekeepers – and most importantly, tasting the honey. As it turns out, in nature, no two honeys are alike.
You can read what makes summer honey so special (and so unlike plastic bear honey) in my latest post, Harvesting Sunlight, over at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association blog.
In talking about honey in that post I introduce the term terroir — a word I had never heard before but which may be familiar to wine connoisseurs. Terroir (pronounced tehr-wah) is a French word that comes from terre meaning “land.” According to Oxford it refers to:
The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
Terroir is why Burgundy wine has nearly as many classifications as the region has soils and why Champagne is called “sparkling wine” when it is made anywhere outside of France’s Champagne region. Since the specifics of the land and environment affects the grapes and thus the flavor of the wine, wine made outside of the region, by definition, cannot be called “Burgundy” or “Champagne.”
Today we use terroir to describe cheese, coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, and hops — anything where the environment has an impact on the flavor of a product. An example that comes to mind in the United States is the Vidalia onion — a sweet onion that takes its unique flavor from the low-sulfur soil that makes up the growing region of Vidalia, Georgia.
But the deeper meaning of terroir goes beyond the effects of the natural environment —
terroir is a mix between a geographical definition and a cultural one. It is a geographical area with specific geological, hydrological, soil and climate characteristics. But it is more than that. The terroir has a strong cultural side. It is the reflection of the human societies that work its land. Different societies produce different terroir with the same territory. (French Food in the US, French Embassy)
With wine, the terroir might include the types of barrels used to age it or a practice like letting grapes freeze on the vine; in cheese it may reflect a long tradition of how the the cheese is processed; in coffee, terroir would take into account when the beans are harvested and how they are roasted.
Which brings me back to honey in plastic bears.
The idea of terroir as having cultural roots got me thinking about how much of that we’ve lost in striving for uniformity in North American industrial food.
As I mentioned in my CSWA post, the reason that honey in plastic bears all tastes the same is because it’s essentially an “average” — a uniform mix of honey sourced from a single crop (canola, here in Canada) which is then processed to remove any trace of pollen, and hence flavor and variability. But it’s what we’re used to and what we expect when we buy honey.
And I realized we have done this with everything — reduced it to an average non-flavor. What is the terroir of Maxwell House coffee, Tetley tea, reconstituted orange juice or Coors Light? What about a french fry or a beef patty? What kind of tomatoes are in a can of tomato sauce?
Each year, our farmers grow 55 different tomato varieties and our tomato experts choose the ideal varieties based upon criteria such as sweetness, texture, and flavour profile to make each specific product. (Hunt’s – Our Freshness Secret)
No Hunt’s, the real secret is in making that “flavour profile” identical and unremarkable, can-after-can, year-after-year.
Those things that we can’t blend into uniformity through processing, we merge to mediocrity by breeding to a single standard that serves as a representative for all the members of its kind. Behold the immensely popular green seedless grape, an orb of sugar water with absolutely no flavor whatsoever.
Like a fence-sitting politician, a fruit with no startling flavors ensures that everyone likes it. In place of real grapes that taste like grapes, we substitute artificial grape flavoring and apply it to junk food. Do children ever wonder why their grapes don’t taste like purple Koolaid? Do they even associate the two things we call “grapes”?
Not only do we insist on unobtrusive flavor, but we insist on unimpeded consumption. We wail over seeds in our grapes, hard-to-peel oranges, crystallized honey, cheese slices that don’t fit our bread and meat that has to be trimmed. Of course industry is happy to meet our delicate sensibilities through genetic selection and processing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a superficial first-world problem. It has implications. Our expectation for uniformity in bananas, for instance (driven and reinforced by the industry) is bringing us perilously close to a global banana crisis that threatens the food security of millions of people.
And while we might claim enlightenment by way of “ethnic” restaurants, Whole Foods and craft beer, the fact remains, industrially-produced food still makes up the vast majority of food consumed in North America.
All of which makes me wonder if there is a terroir of factory food. Maybe the conditions of its production define it in the same way that high altitude grassy pastures define Alpine cheese.
The monocultured produce, the singular corn diet of livestock, the selection of genes for long-term storage over flavor, the careful addition of artificial colors, the cooking and blending, the stainless steel vats — perhaps all these things create a familiar homogeneity that we crave.
And maybe we now recognize the lack of distinct flavor made up for by an overdose of salt or sugar; the neutral and predictable color across batches and years; and the subtle hints of antibiotics and preservatives as the North American terroir of comfort food and home.
What do you think?