Tasting dirt

The continuity of terroir, first-hand

September 21, 2009

When a friend said she wanted to visit me in San Francisco and spend an afternoon tasting dirt, I was a tad miffed. There are, after all, hundreds of exciting things to do in the city, and spending a few hours becoming intimately acquainted with soil was not at the top of my list.

My friend, however, was resolute. She insisted that Laura Parker, the artist in charge of the tasting, was amazing, and that we were going to have a wonderful time.

Laura Parker is an artist whose “Taste of Place” is part art installation, part dirt appreciation.

I told her I was game for any new experience, but to myself I thought, “We’ll see.”

I needn’t have been a doubter.

On a breezy, sunny day later that month, six of us gathered in Parker’s large, light-filled studio. She had set up a makeshift bar with a pile of vegetables, a couple of pastel-hued eggs, a small round of cheese, a half-dozen wine glasses, and several Mason jars full of fresh dirt.

All of us were quiet, unsure of what to expect. We watched as Parker shook dirt from a large Mason jar into each wine glass. The dirt was average-looking — brown, clotted in spots with rock or silt, with the occasional twig and bug mixed in. But it was special dirt. It had been shipped to Parker just for this tasting from T&D Willey Farms in Madera, 160 miles away.

Parker poured a bit of water into each glass and then furiously stirred the water into the brown, dry earth. As she worked, she passed the jar of dry dirt, encouraging us to smell the soil and discuss its aroma.

“It smells like dirt,” I thought. But it made me realize that I might not have really smelled dirt in decades. The earthy, fresh scent brought back memories of planting strawberries in our back yard and afternoons spent helping my mother with the weeding.

After a few minutes, Parker handed us each a wine glass filled with what was, essentially, mud. “What do you think?” she asked, explaining that it takes a few minutes for the aromas in the soil to develop.

Dirt from different places — well, it differs.

We were quiet and tentative at first, sniffing deeply and staring at the ceiling. Then we began to talk.

“Salty,” “silty,” “minerally,” “wet,” “earthy,” and “green” were just some of the adjectives we tossed out. All seemed logical descriptors for mud.

In this regard, the dirt tasting was not unlike a wine tasting, where people might describe any red wine as “juicy” or “fruity.” But there was more to this experience: We were swirling and stirring the dirt, and really smelling it. One person even dared to take a taste. At once we were fervently contemplating the aroma profile of the earth.

Next we tasted produce grown in the same dirt we’d just spent 10 minutes smelling and discussing. Parker handed us each a piece of collard greens, then a small and perfectly formed radish.

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I put the collard greens in my mouth, chewed, and was startled — the greens tasted how the dirt smelled. They were dark and earthy and vegetal. The same was true of the radish — its peppery, salty notes were reminiscent of the minerally, silty characteristics we smelled in the dirt.

The mud from Pugs Leap Farm in Healdsburg was thick and dark and hearty, and smelled like a green pasture. After smelling the soil, we tasted chervil grown at Pugs Leap, then a chunk of egg from chickens raised at Pugs Leap, and finally a delicate slice of tomme cheese made from the milk of goats raised at Pugs Leap.

Would you believe me if I said I could taste the continuity? The chervil was delicate yet distinctly herbaceous, and the yolk of the egg had a creamy green freshness. And the tomme was soft, mild, and — can I say it again? — divinely green.

I was stunned. I’ve had some miraculous food experiences, but nothing that illustrated so convincingly the connection between the health of the land and the food that I put in my mouth.

I thought of my trip to Safeway earlier in the week; I’d run in to grab cilantro, not wanting to go a bit further to the store with local produce. I thought of my trips to the local farmers’ market, where I’m sometimes dismayed by how much things seem to cost.

But now the extra five minutes of travel, the few more dollars, seemed like nothing in comparison to the bigger picture: I wanted food (organic, local, whatever) that was grown in healthy land.

Suddenly it was all so obvious: Healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people. It was a paradigm shift.

Parker experienced similar revelations decades ago. She “discovered” dirt in France; a friend, the chef and cooking instructor Robert Reynolds, had introduced her to a cheesemaker so passionate and talented, she felt sure she could taste the terroir, or land, in the cheeses made from milk sourced from locally raised animals.

How many of us have really contemplated dirt?

The experience made her think carefully about food. She remembered summers spent at a cousin’s farm, lying in the hot dirt between rows of produce. She became inspired by slightly imperfect fruits and vegetables and painted large-scale interpretations of mottled apples and bruised peaches in her studio.

She spent years thinking about the soil, wondering how land influences our lives and why the healthiness of the dirt our food is grown in matters.

And she put it all together in Taste of Place, a sort of dirt tasting meets art installation, as an attempt to answer these questions. Our afternoon in her studio was just one Taste of Place session.

Upon first consideration, the answers seem obvious: As caring consumers, we’re told that it matters where our food comes from. We try to buy locally and look for the organic label. If we’re fortunate, we’ve been lucky enough to taste truly fresh-from-the-garden local produce.

But how many of us have really contemplated dirt? How many of us have really considered the relationship that geography and soil health have to the flavor of the food that we eat? This is the point of Parker’s project.

By the end of the tasting, we were visibly invigorated, madly sharing stories of the gardens we were planting, the chickens being raised in a back yard, and why we love cooking and eating at home. Parker opened a bottle of French Loire Valley white wine, and we toasted, finished the cheese, and continued our storytelling.

We had tasted place, and were inspired to do it again and again.

Anne Zimmerman is a writer based in the Bay Area.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by Hannah on Sep 22, 2009 at 2:10 PM PDT

Is there a way to contact Laura to participate in a tasting? I wasn’t able to get through to the contact email on the Taste of Place website. Thanks!

2. by Anne Zimmerman on Sep 23, 2009 at 11:39 AM PDT

Hi Hannah,
I actually just heard from Laura and she is out of the country (exploring new dirt I imagine).
I will pass along that there might be an e-mail issue, but please try again in a couple of weeks. I know she would love to hear from you!

3. by Hannah on Sep 23, 2009 at 12:26 PM PDT

Thank you! I managed to get in touch with her through her personal website and am looking forward to doing a tasting soon!

4. by maggie on Sep 23, 2009 at 12:40 PM PDT

So interesting! Great piece.

5. by Wendy on Sep 24, 2009 at 11:57 AM PDT

Great piece! Just wanted to let you know that I came across an article on www.askmelissa.com (They have a great epicurean section) about this restaurant called Dhaba. It sounds like a really cool Indian restaurant in NY and I thought you may like to check it out. Here’s the link for more info: http://www.askmelissa.com/index.php/features/dhaba_09-24-09

6. by lafemmeartiste on Sep 26, 2009 at 12:30 PM PDT

As a child in a military family, a very long time ago, we lived in a pig-farming village north of Paris, by an hour and a half.
What I remember learning from the villagers as a child of six and seven, was that a baguette could be identified by the village where the grain for the flour was grown. This was in the very early sixties when farming was still done by hand, no chemicals. That period of my life has informed my entire life, and now I am very heartened to watch and listen to a generation of Americans beginning to grow their palette awareness!
Another consideration, is the perspective of politics from the level of soil. Do you know the very last historically matriarchal land ownership traditions are being wiped out in the region once known as Burma?

7. by sophia on Sep 29, 2009 at 11:18 AM PDT

dirt is what you sweep up off the floors of your house
SOIL is what you grow your food in

8. by Anne Zimmerman on Sep 29, 2009 at 2:13 PM PDT

Hi Sophie,
You have a valid point. However, I do think it is important to consider that non-foodies (ie the majority of people out there) don’t have nearly the nuanced understanding of food politics that many of us do. To them, food grows in dirt. Its a humble start, but legitimate nonetheless.

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