When Jennifer and I spent time in the Burgundy region of France, we had the great pleasure of visiting the vineyards of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, near the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Neither of has tasted this fabled Pinot Noir, nor are we likely to in our lives. But in our naïveté, we thought it would be fun to buy a bottle for Jen’s Dad, a wine connoisseur, as a gift. It was a superb idea, we thought until we learned the price. The 2006 vintage, the year we were there, now goes for upwards of $16,000 for a 750ml bottle!
The wine’s price tag has much to do with supply and demand, as it produces a minimal number of cases annually. The entire Domaine de la Romanée-Conti consists of 28 hectares. Within that area, there are 11 grands crus or vintners. La Romanée Conti, the most famous, is 1.8 hectares or about three acres.
It’s also considered one of the best wines, thanks to the perfect ecosystem for growing grapes. The drainage, the quality, and depth of the soil, minerality, the sun exposure, the microbiology all play a role.
The perfect ecosystem
Not much happens in the cellar, according to our tour guide. The perfection is in the grapes themselves.
Even in this small area, however, some land packages are better than others, depending on their locations. Grapes from one vineyard may produce a glass of far better wine than another across the narrow road, or on a higher part of the slope.
This is terroir, the peculiar conditions in which wine grapes — or any agricultural product — thrive and mature. The wine tastes of the vine. The grape tastes of its terroir.
So the tour guide says. I’m no wine expert, but I appreciate the concept, especially as it relates to wheat as used in bread.
Terroir and Dirt
I recently came across another story of terroir in a new book, Dirt, Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking by a former editor of the New Yorker, Bill Buford.
What an excellent read! Full of great stories from the restaurant kitchens of Lyon, the culinary capital of France, and a broad investigation into why French cooking is the way it is.
Buford gave up a respectable gig as a literary editor in New York to learn about the Lyon culinary tradition, home of many of the country’s most celebrated chefs (including the legendary Paul Bocuse). He starts at the bottom and works his way up the ladder, surviving the endless hours, learning the demanding rigueur of the kitchen. He tolerates all verbal hazing (Putain de merde!) and cruel tricks that a novice cook endures.
What he initially imagined as a few months in France turns in to five years. His twin toddler sons enter a Lyon school, learn to speak better French than their native English. His wife, Jessica Green, also a writer, earns her certification to be a wine educator.
A baker named Bob
Buford’s success in the kitchens has as much to do with the skills he learns as his savoir-faire and his studiousness. His first stint is in the Boulangerie Phillipe Richard, a bread and pastry shop near the apartment he rents with his family. The baker is known to Buford and everyone in his Lyon quartier as Bob. I mentioned Bob in an April post of the Happy Monk blog when an excerpt from Buford’s Dirt ran in The New Yorker.
(Here is a video of Bill Buford profiling Bob the baker in his Lyon bakery0
It wasn’t so much Bob’s technique that made his baguettes so revered in the city. It was his flour that came from the Auvergne region, about 170km due west of Lyon. Buford detects the flour’s unique aroma, its taste. Even his twin boys know the flavour of Bob’s flour.
A visit with a miller
Buford visits a miller near the area where Bob’s flour comes from. He eats a roll made with the flour, closes his eyes, and tastes Bob’s bread.
“You recognize it,” the miller says. “It comes from wheat that is a living plant, not an industrial starch.”
“Where do you get it?” Buford asks.
“Small farms. Nothing more than 40 hectares (a hundred acres).”
Buford asks where the farms are located. He had not noticed wheat farms in his travels in the region.
The terroir of wheat
“Here in Savoie,” says the miller. “And the Rhone Valley. They grow an old wheat, a quality wheat. And the Auvergne. I love the wheat from the Auvergne. Everyone does. The volcanic soil, the iron-rich dirt. You can taste it in the bread.”
What do small farms have that the big ones don’t? Buford asks.
Small farms are the only ones with soil that hasn’t been “ruined” with chemical fertilizers and wheat varieties that produce massive yields.
“The bread that you make from [this mass-produced wheat] has the texture and smell of bread, but it doesn’t have the goût [the taste].”
The exchange between Buford and his miller friend is a description of the terroir of wheat. The unique growing conditions of farms that recognize the peculiarities of the soil, topography, the weather. The farmers that exploit these factors build on them and produce wheat that reflects the terroir in the goût.
Those who visit France and marvel at its food understand this. Baguettes can taste ordinary there, but they can also be transcendent, as Jennifer and I experienced during our visits.
Coming to a farm near you
Many in North America are beginning to understand this. They are setting up small organic farms that grow grains and legumes with superior flavour. Ingredients that reflect the terroir they come from.
Happy Monk bread is made from organic flour grown in the Okanagan region of British Columbia. The grains produced by these artisan farms are pooled by a company called Fieldstone Organics, which cleans and processes the grain. It is then sold to small stone milling operations, such as Nootka Rose Milling in Metchosin, B.C., where all Happy Monk grain and flour comes from.
And you can taste the difference! It was a revelation to me to find that flour actually has flavour. The grassy taste of organic spelt, the tannin of Red Fife wheat! Here, we’re beginning to understand the benefits of small-scale farming, that it can co-exist with larger operations, and offer more flavour and sustainable farming practices for those who want it. Those who need it!
Good food tastes of itself
Buford sums up his quest for good food:
We learned the taste of good food. For thousands of years, the food has comes from a place, from a soil, that is a testament to its ancient history. Good food tastes of itself.
I had gone to France to learn basics. The basics of kitchen. The basics of place, and what grows here and what doesn’t grow there. I wanted to get as close to my sources as possible, where the words come from, how we arrive at flavour. I wanted to re-examine my assumptions … to get as elemental and as primary as possible. Heat. Water. Labour. Place. And its dirt.”
I’d like to hope we’re doing the same here. It’s what interests me with the bread we make at the Happy Monk Baking Company. People are interested in good food that tastes of itself.