by Gareth Groves
Terroir is a very common word in the world of wine. A French concept with no obvious direct translation into English, it is adept at wriggling out of attempts to define it. Intrinsically linked to soils, climate and the effect of the environment on the taste of a wine, it can perhaps be imperfectly summed up as a ‘sense of place’.
The term is often applied to food too, especially in France but increasingly elsewhere too, including Claridges in London where Noma, the world’s best restaurant (according to the chefs and critics that vote in Restaurant Magazine’s annual straw poll) has popped up for ten days only.
Time and place are not new concepts to the chef behind the dish, Rene Redzepi. His coffee table cookbook has the words emblazoned on the front cover. Terroir is what Redzepi and Noma do.
Food and Terroir
A Taste of Noma currently being served at Claridges includes a dish that is the best example of terroir I have experienced in recent months: a simple oyster lightly poached in buttermilk.
Now it is a fact universally acknowledged that oysters taste of the sea. It is the oldest cliché in the book, right up there with frogs’ legs tasting of chicken. Like most clichés it is at least partially grounded in the truth. A raw briney oyster does smell of the sea. Order a dozen No.2 natives at the Company Shed on West Mersea island and the tide rushes straight through the ramshackle door and laps at your ankles.
This particularly oyster went a whole lot further. It may have been served in the relatively grand setting of a large London hotel function room but it teleported me several hundred miles north.
Served in a cold, charcoal grey granite dish filled with shells, pebbles and foraged sea fennel, it looked like a deserted East Neuk beach in February; the oyster just another washed up shell. No one romanticizes the North Sea. In popular culture, it is the home of misanthropic detectives. It is John Rebus’ gallows humour and Martin Beck’s world weary pessimism. The views out to sea offer a sense of perspective but rarely hope.
The dish had the same coldness and hardness, the ceramics and stones supporting the solitary mollusc painted as vivid a picture as the taste of the oyster itself. The soft buttermilk liquor evoked a weak sun fighting its way over the winter horizon. The raw sea fennel offered a taste of the weeds between the stones.
If ever a dish had that much vaunted sense of place then this was it.
A Taste of Noma is just that – a glimpse rather than a facsimile of the experience diners get in Copenhagen, but on this evidence a pilgrimage to Denmark would be a trip worth making. Redzepi’s food is the most beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent I have encountered in an awful long time. There is a purpose behind the plates. You’ll be glad to know the one thing the food isn’t is ‘witty’. The north North Sea doesn’t do jokes.
Wine and Terroir
The team at Noma take wine just as seriously, as this article on eater.com shows. Wine Director, Pontus Elofsson, is effusive in his praise for the avant-garde and for natural wines. His is equally disparaging about Bordeaux which he describes as “probably the biggest chemical factory in Europe” – an interesting soundbite given the number of big name clarets on the list at the Claridges Pop-Up.
What I find interesting is the contrast between Elofsson’s promotion of wines with minimal intervention, and the extensive and clever use of modern technology in Noma’s kitchen. A quick flick through the aforementioned Noma cookbook will reveal very few dishes that can be made without the use of some sort of hi-tech gadgetry. Noma may not be a temple of molecular gastronomy but neither is it beholden to ingredients in the raw.
Is there one rule for the chef and another for the winemaker?
I loved the walnut ice cream dessert that Redzepi serves both in London and Copenhagen and the fact the wild berries had been freeze dried and crushed only added to the experience. Transforming the raw fruit into the explosive purple grains on my plate added interest, excitement and made for a superior experience.
A talented, sensitive winemaker can have a similar effect on the raw materials that he works with. Human intervention is not a bad thing per se.
Does a wine have to be ‘natural’ (however broadly defined) to be excellent, authentic and reflective of its terroir, as Elofsson suggests? Does the use of any technology in the cellar erode the taste of terroir? Not in my book but that is a debate that will rumble on and on.
Tags: Restaurant Review