Monday, March 24, 2014

Human terroir

So, there is this word that I’ve been swirling around in my mind palate/palette for a while now. It pertains to all things I love, not least of which is coffee (followed by bourbon, chocolate, wine and cheese and not necessarily in that order). Of course, it is a French word, because for some reason English does not have that all-encompassing quality that other tongues do when it comes to creating a scene as opposed to just saying what a thing is.

Terroir is one of my favorite words. I use the term more in my head than I do out loud (I know how to pronounce it just fine, by the way); maybe because it would sound ridiculous explaining to my brothers that I think Dunkin Donuts coffee tastes like shit is that there is no sense of terroir, that the beans are roasted with a bunch of chemicals and mixed together in a whorebed of greasy casings and unnatural flavorings.

“I can’t taste it anyway. I can’t taste the difference between black coffee from the Mobile or from some fancy café.”

At least they are honest. It makes me cringe and have sympathy heartburn pains.

Terroir is this: a sense of place; the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.

So, if your Bolivian coffee tastes remotely of chocolate and black cherries and mountaintop, that’s because that stash of beans is surrounded by those elements and in a good bean, you will taste the flavors of the geography around it…you will taste the story of the place. It’s there, somewhere. For coffee geeks like me, it’s transformative. I drink good coffee because I want the experience of the coffee, not just the caffeine. I want to be transported to the tiny farm on some fog-covered hillside in South America. Or, if it’s a good French roast, a street café in Provence, watching the world go by while I sit back and sip and just be.

People rely on these moments. Mothers rely especially on these moments. It never fails that when I go into the furthest room of the house with my coffee, just to sit on the sun porch for a few minutes before the day explodes into work, school, permission slips, baseball, robotics, etc., that one of them will follow me into the room, guns blazing.

“What’s the most powerful car in the world?”

“I don’t know. A Bugatti?” Sip, sip. I can almost hear a Saint’s Day parade at the top of Machu Picchu…

“What’s the fastest Formula 1 car? Who drives it? Where’s the most dangerous track? Do you think I should be an architect or a race car driver?”


“Architect. That way I can sleep at night. Go brush your teeth.”

I know full well he will try to continue the conversation with a mouthful of toothpaste from the top of the stairs.
That’s his terroir. Toothpaste, cherry tomatoes and wood smoke are the overtones. He’s young, so things haven’t had a chance to deepen quite yet, but my guess is that he will have a floral quality to his skin and that his feet will always smell like soil and maybe a little bit of rubber from the years on the trampoline.

“You’re friggin’ nuts,” my daughter says in her most eloquent, pre-dawn tone. My theory on human terroir has lost me some credibility while we drive to school.

“I think about it all the time,” I say, turning down the radio that Lucian has just cranked to the ElecArea station which nearly gives me a heart attack. “It’s too early to feel like I’m in a nightclub in Berlin,” I say.

“So people have smells, is that what you’re saying. People are smelly because of where they live?”

“Well, that, too…but no. People will always carry the essence of how they grew from season to season. Like, this year, we had a lot of bonfires and campfires, so we are smoky. And we ate a lot of raspberries so there is a tanginess…sweet but sharp.”

I make eye contact with her in the rearview mirror.

“Very funny,” she says. “So, some years, can people turn bad? Can they be shitty and ‘taste’ like bad coffee?”

“Sure. I knew I guy who smelled like onions and bad Chinese food. It got stronger as the years rolled by.”

“That’s a lonely smell.”

“It is. Very lonely.”

I think back through the years of our terroir. How we’ve nearly ruined it with chemicals – Prozac, bad bourbon, cigarettes, Hamburger Helper, urban dust – and wonder how much of it we can hide in the final cupping. What will that last sip reveal? Will the despair of diner coffee overpower the longstanding presence of sawdust and cherry tobacco and fresh herbs from years of toiling in the garden? What a shame that would be.

Lucian pipes up, his 10-year-old face is ethereal like an alabaster statue.

“It’s not just the terroir [his pronunciation is more like ‘terror’], Ma. It’s how you prepare it, too. Sometimes people can have really good smells that are ruined by a crappy coffee maker.”

We drive by a flooded, icy field overrun by water seeping out from the Housatonic River.

“Toxic terroir,” my daughter says under her breath. “Totally toxic.”

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