A farmer friend of mine, John Tecklin of Mountain Bounty Farm, attended the Terra Madre Conference in Italy several years ago. Put on by the creators of the Slow Food movement, the conference is a gathering of small-scale farmers from around the world and is held concurrently with the Salone del Gusto, a gigantic celebration of artisanal foods. I remember John’s enthusiasm on returning from Italy; he was renewed and re-inspired by all the small farms he had visited and all the delicious food he had eaten.
An article sent to me by a reader reminded me of one of the stories John came home with. He was wandering the food aisles of the Salone del Gusto, drinking in the vast array of cheeses, sausages, breads, and vegetables. One of the booths featured a tomato – red, plump, and vital – that attracted John. After talking with the tomato’s grower for a time, John asked the farmer if it would be possible to get some seeds of this tomato. The farmer looked at John with surprise, and asked where he lived. When John told him California, the farmer explained that John could not grow this tomato. It only grew in the one region in Italy where this farmer lived.
When I first heard this story, I didn’t really understand it. It seemed that the tomato grower was simply being proprietary and didn’t want his beloved tomato to spread around the world. Now, however, I understand that the tomato farmer was just being honest. He understood a great truth about the relationship between a thing – including a tomato – and its environment: They are inseparable.
Had John taken seeds of this tomato home and planted them, he would have grown a different tomato. The science of epigenetics has discovered that cells are in a constant conversation with their environment. This conversation often leads to changes in the genetic material, the DNA, of the cell. A tomato growing in the climate, soils, and water of California will not be the same as a tomato grown in the climate, soils, and water of Italy, even if they start out with the same DNA, because California is not Italy.
This is a concept that winegrowers have long known, and the word they use to describe it is terroir. Now vegetable growers and chefs are discovering it as well, and they are beginning to form partnerships that celebrate and develop the unique flavors grown in each unique place on Earth.
My thanks to Anna for this link: Chef David Kinch: Partnership of Restaurant and Farm.