Cheese in the Roots

Have you ever read a roman de terroir? Or even better, written one? How do you even translate that? There’s no English equivalent for terroir, which is why you come across so many different translations: land, soil, specific area, region… Or some give up and transpose it wholesale – terroir. The concept is subtle, complex, multi-layered. And French. Very much like wine, in fact, which isn’t surprising since that’s where it springs from and where its core meaning still lies. It’s the unique combination of soil, climate and topography that gives the distinctive flavour to a vineyard’s production. You can do all you want with modern techniques but you can’t change the terroir. It’s what was given by nature.

As a result, it has the connotation of authentic, rooted in tradition, something that will always resist the onslaught of machinery. And that’s reassuring. In a globalised world of carbon emissions, sovereign debt and robots, what better antidote than a quiet afternoon in the company of friends and family, basking in the cradle of the terroir?

Naturally, advertisers latched on to this a while ago. Dairy products especially get the full terroir treatment: elderly peasant with sunny accent and beret, rolling countryside, family values passed from one generation to the next.

Whether we want to call it artistic licence or a lie depends how indulgent we are. But when you look at the ad for La Laitière, you need to pinch yourself when you see who it’s made by. Never was authenticity less authentic.

How much of this sleight of hand (to be charitable) applies to the roman de terroir? Are we being served a rosy vision from the past, complete with cliché and nostalgia sauce? Well, not having read any, I can’t say – which is why I’d love to hear your opinions on this. What I do know is that these novels constitute a genre unto themselves, and a highly popular one too: on average, each title in Terres de France, an imprint specialising in the genre, sells 25000 copies. Again, this appears to be specific to France. To be sure, historical novels abound in English, but the genre is broad and though many do deal with specific regions, the notion of terroir is absent.

Being somewhat rootless myself, I think I’d find it very tricky to write one. But who knows? With sales like that on offer, I might be tempted one day. As long as I don’t make it too cheesy.

This post (managed to get in early this time!) is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up. Check it out for the many and various contributions covering all aspects of French life.

Lou Messugo