Book Review – American Terroir

During a recent bowse of one of my favorite bookstores, I came across a book that had a cover which certainly caught my interest – it had a picture of apples on the cover (as well as cheese, coffee and chocolate). Subtitled “Savoring the flavors of our woods, waters, and fields,” American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen obtained the somewhat rare honor of being picked up immediately and carried with me through the store as I continued to browse – usually I just make mental notes of where books are and only pick them up as I make my way to the checkout.

The basic premise of the book is to take the concept of terrior and free it from it’s wine connotations by exploring the relationships of geography, climate, and culture as it applies to various other foods. A selection of foods are covered in roughly 20 pages each, starting with an introduction based on some notable occurrence with the food (for example how the author first came across it or a description of an extraordinary commodity auction) followed by a description of it’s key aspects and history, which usually serves as an introduction to a producer who discusses how the concept of terrior applies to their product. This is then followed by a few basic recipes based around the food and a listing of sources for those inclined to try some first hand.

The basic foods covered are:

Maple syrup
Apple cider
Mussels (with an aside on potatoes)
Foraged forest and wetland produce

In general I found it to be a reasonable book which had the advantage of covering many of my favorite items, but at a level which was just slightly too superficial for me (though being more of an overview I can’t really hold that against it – having read a few hundred pages on honey or a few thousand on apples, a 20 page piece on either will come across as superficial… but having never paid attention to avocados before I felt I learned quite a bit in those 20 pages). Probably the best indicator of the impact the book had on me was that within a day of completing it I had found myself in Seattle’s Pike Place market, and without really thinking about it found myself buying something representing most of what was covered in the book; sometimes the exact item described, sometimes something similar.

A case in point – I have consumed vast quantities of coffee of varying qualities ranging from overboiled sludge out of an enamel pot around a campfire through standard daily drips, French press rituals, and reaching to complicated combinations showcasing the art of the barista. The book, however, goes to great lengths to point out that dark roasts overpower the actual flavor of the coffee itself and praises light roasts as they way to experience the full flavor profile. Seattle is a great place to explore coffee, so thanks to the book I dropped into a local independent coffee roaster and did a tasting of coffees made from the same batch of raw beans and brewed the same, but roasted differently. Sure enough, when I was looking for it I could tell that the lighter roast did have a more complex flavor profile, but I also found that it had a much thinner body and was overall “weaker” than the darker roasts. Call it habit, call it acclimation, call it training – my overall pick was still the darkest roast with it’s blunt force, full body, and lingering finish of charcoal.

Probably the biggest negative on the book was that as a book focusing on “America” it really only considered the edges. Granted, to try and consider everything would be too much for one book, but it was hard to overlook the omission of the vast majority of the continent.

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