Rethinking Healthcare

The War for Terroir

The War for Terroir

Posting in Food

What if Americans demanded the good stuff, what if the Department of Agriculture encouraged us to buy it? What if the DoA also had more programs to help farmers and artisans make only good stuff?

Yesterday I had some really good cheese.

(No, these are onions, from Wikipedia.)

It was creamy, shot through blue with bacteria. It was expensive, over $20 per pound, but well worth it.

You have to let good cheese sit out until it reaches room temperature, and it's hard to eat more than an ounce at a sitting. But it will convince you that life is good.

What brings this up is The New York Times wanting me to get mad at the Department of Agriculture over its pushing of American cheese onto Americans.

Cheese is a major source of saturated fat, they note. Saturated fat is a cause of obesity. Your government is encouraging obesity with your tax dollars.

I guess so. But if your producers are mostly making pizza cheese, you sell pizza cheese.

The real problem here is that about the only thing America makes these days is pizza cheese. Most of our cheese is mass produced and very ordinary. It's cheap, but it takes a lot of pizza cheese to keep producers in profit.

We all love to dump on the French, but they at least have learned how to maximize their profit on food. One way is to make really good cheese.

Take Roquefort. There are strict rules for real Roquefort. It must come from a specific area, from specific animals, be made and stored in a specific way. It's worth the 43 Euros a kilogram (that's $24/pound, or $6 for a quarter-pound hunk) they're asking.

France is filled with places like Roquefort, and high quality foods made under strict controls that carry a premium price. The concept is called terroir, derived from the French word for land, and it helps keep France one of the largest food exporters in the world.

We like to complain that the French farmers, and their products, are subsidized. But as the example which began this piece illustrates, we do the same thing. The difference is that our subsidies go to mass quantities while theirs go to good stuff.

Yet we make good stuff, too. Some American producers have learned how to get premium prices.

California wine makers, for instance, use the word meritage to denote blended wines similar to the French Bordeaux which are worth a high price. (Fools pronounce it mer-i-TAGE, like it's French. The correct pronounciation is mer-it-edge, the American way.)

We even have some equivalents of the French appellation controllee. A real Vidalia onion comes only from a certain part of south Georgia, grown in specific soil under specific conditions. And look, their Web site features a pizza recipe.

It's true that class food costs more than mass food, but it's worth more too. It takes a lot of time and effort to make a really good artisanal cheese. But there are people, even in south Georgia, who are taking that time and doing it right.

This does relate directly to health. I only had a little of that cheese last night. I ate it over an hour and was deeply satisfied. Yeah, I'm a foodie.

But what if Americans demanded the good stuff, what if the Department of Agriculture encouraged us to buy it? What if the DoA also had more programs to help farmers and artisans make only good stuff?

If our government put more of its money into a war for terroir, producers would make more money, Americans would eat better food, and we might even lose weight.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure