By Pattie Baker
Terroir, most often, refers to the discernible taste of specific characteristics in wines resulting from differing climates, locations and soil. The length of the day, the slope of the land, the mineral content. It all matters. Yet terroir, or a sense of place, can also mean the length of conversations, the meandering slope of memory or the content of relationships. It can mean not just nuance that you taste, but that you feel, deep in your being.
As Georgia’s landscape cascades from the hills of the north to crashing coastline waves, the food changes with the scenery from apple butter, turnip greens and field peas, sweet potatoes and sweet tea, pecans and pit barbecue to shrimp, rice and okra. The majority of traditional southern cooking is derived from its history of the Native Americans, the European colonists, and the African slaves. Yet to say that the clichÃ© of corn grits and peach cobbler sums up Georgia’s terroir would be missing half the equation because Georgia is no longer a land of the past. It is a land of possibility.
Building Flavor from the Ground Up
As Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, creator and director of the biodynamic farm at Hampton Island Preserve near Savannah, says, “farming in Georgia today comes down to two things. One, what do we have to work with? And, two, what do we want to create?” Farmer D has created a southern farm that includes traditional crops as well as ginger, lemongrass, green tea and a tuberous vegetable called dasheen in a nod to the changing flavors of our region. As for terroir, he believes that our state’s predominantly clay soil serves as the mediator between lime and silica, the opposing ends of the soil pH scale.
Angie Mosier, Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance explains, “to say you are a southern restaurant used to mean that you served only traditional southern dishes. But today, if you’re buying fresh, local ingredients and you are in the south, you are a southern restaurant. The influx of influences from immigrants and others changes our taste, creating something beautiful, interesting and distinct.”
The Southern Foodways Alliance documents the changing heritage of the region for preservation. It has created the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans, and Chefs in order to foster camaraderie and mentorship, honoring the bounty of the south and the hands that grow, nurture, and interpret each harvest. Two of the three fellowship inductees for 2008 hail from Georgia: Scott Peacock, Chef of Watershed restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, and Jeremy and Jessica Little, artisan cheese makers at Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia.
Georgeanna Chapman, who served as the administrator for the Fellowship, notes “it is significant that the Fellowship seeks to induct people who practice sustainable farming methods. They help preserve southern food ways by nurturing the land and livestock from which it comes.” The Littles prove this point. Not only do they produce exquisite artisinal cheeses, but their rotational grazing system cares for both the land and the ruminants that allow them to produce their cheese. Says Chapman, “inducting the Littles also speaks to the Fellowship’s embracing an evolving south. Southern cheese makers are a relatively new breed of artisans. Prior to the introduction of the refrigerator, the climate simply didn’t allow for it.”
“People are warming up to a reinterpretation of Southern classics,” says Marc Sommers, Co-Owner of Parsley’s Catering Company. “A lot of chefs are incorporating the diverse face of Georgia in their flavors, and what’s happening is that the result is going beyond fusion, or intentional blending of flavors from different cultures. A new culture is emerging.”
As increasing numbers of chefs and consumers are discovering, if the taste of a place starts in the soil, then, ultimately, that soil must be farmed organically.
“Organic agriculture is essentially a farmer producing crops through a collaborative relationship with the soil,” states Judith Winfrey, Membership Coordinator at Georgia Organics and Partner of Joe Reynolds, Farm Director at Love is Love Farm, a new farm on an old homestead.
Maximizing Georgia Taste, Minimizing Distance
Visit a restaurant like Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia, or The Hil at Serenbe in Palmetto, Georgia, and you don’t have to wonder where the farm-fresh food comes from. At Farm 255, it’s Full Moon Cooperative, an organic farm affiliated with the restaurant and located just a few miles away. No, the restaurant owners don’t own the farm. The farmers own the restaurant.
Jason Mann of Full Moon Cooperative/Farm 255
More and more restaurants throughout the state are finding that customers are starting to appreciate what many chefs have always known-local, in-season ingredients have a unique quality to them that cannot be replicated any other way. Call it flavor, like the way Sweet Grass Dairy’s fresh chevre changes from citrusy to tart to woodsy as the grasses change each season on which the goats at this New Zealand-style dairy farm graze. Call it terroir, the unique combination of minerals and nutrients as well as time and place and experience that provide content and context to the food we eat and wine we drink.
Cheese aging at award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia.
Paradoxically, consumers are leaving home in record numbers to come to the homes where the foods they love are grown or produced. Agri-tourism, or the offering of tourist-friendly on-farm activities, is booming in Georgia. Corn mazes, bonfires, hayrides and pick-your-own farms get folks out in the fields and help them see first-hand what it means for crops to be “Georgia-grown,” plus it gives farmers ways to build new revenue streams. Wine-tastings, tours and special events at Georgia’s wineries put terroir front and center as the local wine industry continues to explode from Statesboro to Folkston, Concord to Clayton.
I will taste the richness of this soil, this terroir, and the memory of this moment in the sun, and the intention with which I care for my little place of earth. And I will know that I am home.
Pattie Baker publishes FoodShed (foodshed.blogspot.com) and runs a writing studio named Fresh Baked Copy (www.pattiebaker.com). She provided this article for Georgia Organics, a member-supported nonprofit organization working to integrate healthy, sustainable, and locally grown food into the lives of all Georgians (www.georgiaorganics.org).