Shade - Sun - Slope - Soil. That’s an easy-to-remember, simplification of terroir. The concept, however, is more complex than climate and geology. It encompasses a unique sense of place — of cultural history, viticultural practices, and the passion of the people making the wine. Yes, terroir is THE ubiquitous wine term.
It is an earthy word and the best winemakers will tell you that they are farmers first. So why isn’t this term applied to all farmers, onshore and offshore, those who grow, raise and harvest the food we eat? Terroir is about pride of place and there is no place on the east coast showcasing its unique flavor as proudly as Charleston and her barrier islands.
The terroir-driven philosophy known as “farm to table” is no stranger to the Low Country. This passionate movement was born out of concern for the health of our children and our environment. It is a spirited advocacy for and validation of the plight of the small farmer. It is a reaction to the ecological, biological and sociological ramifications of industrialized, genetically manipulative agribusiness. (That’s not only frightening, but hard to articulate.) Farm to Table, as a movement, is a relatively young one with a rather large thumbprint on the mediaattuned psyche of American consumers. There is, however, a quieter conceptualization of farm to table here in Charleston — more a way of life really — and its been happening without comment for quite some time.
In her infancy, the colonial seaport of Charleston was just beginning to define its food culture, a gastronomic discovery that is still strongly present after hundreds of years. The Gullah were people of African ancestry that inhabited the Sea Islands and coastal areas of South Carolina. They found a similarity in the terroir of the Low Country and that of their home on Africa’s West Coast. As they adapted to a foreign land, they integrated their West African cooking traditions, recipes, even non-indigenous seeds into the culture. What had been passed down from generation to generation in these West African families, had now found a place in the culinary heritage of South Carolinians.
Charleston’s restaurant scene has certainly garnered a great deal of media attention and deservedly so. The James Beard Foundation has recognized many of the city’s restaurateurs, chefs and bakers. Perhaps that acknowledgement is not only the result of the talented individuals working here, but the by-product of how the city’s pride of terroir is reflected in its cuisine. Nowhere is the concept of farm to table applied as stringently as it is at newcomer, Husk, directed by James Beard award winner, Sean Brock. He is dedicated to sourcing everything they plate, seasonally and regionally. Brock even grows someof the produce himself. Faced with the challenge of seasonality, Husk is creating an uber pantry, taking the excess of a season and preserving, pickling, and smoking it. Meanwhile, just a few streets over at Fig, another James Beard award winning chef, Mike Lata is following his own terroir-driven imperative. Perhaps not as strictly, but certainly with the same great passion.
Charleston’s celebrity chef scene has some of the most recognized gatekeepers of the farm to table movement, but locals also know that this culinary celebration of our land is found in hundreds of fine, casual, and divey restaurants here in the Low Country. It is not unusual to see the names of neighboring farmers or fisherman alongside a sumptuous offering on any of these menus. If there is no name beside a menu item, don’t assume that it is not locally sourced. It’s there. Terroir. You may not always see it, but you can taste it.
Perhaps the most tangible way to see “farm to table” at work in Charleston is on a Saturday morning in Marion Square. Mimi Sheraton, veteran New York Times food critic, listed Charleston’s Farmers Market as one of the best in the country. The market, which runs April through mid-December, is eagerly awaited and sorely missed when it closes. It’s not just local foodies packing the pathways between families. There is something liberating about paying the farmer for your produce rather than the grocer. More importantly, it is a communal experience meeting area farmers, local artisans, and food vendors. This year welcomes back local and organic producers like Owl’s Nest Plantation, Joseph Fields Farm, Chucktown Chicken, Thackeray Farms, Giddy Goat Cheese and Sea Island Savory Herbs to name a few. Happily, the market has grown since last year, with booths wrapping even more territorially around Marion Square. The most stand out addition to this year’s participants, however, is the food cart featuring “not your average” ice cream. “Roots” Ice Cream is an earthy frozen treat that is, by design, local and seasonal with flavors such as strawberry/ cilantro, beet swirl, and sweet tea. Adventurous and delightful.
Strategically sandwiched between “Roots” Ice Cream and the pet adoption booth, near the joyously noisy jump castles, is the Lowcountry Local First booth. Lowcountry Local First (LLF) is the voice of the farm to table movement in Charleston and the backbone of the movement, supporting an organizational infrastructure and providing the muscle and sinew to connect our consumers to our farms and the local businesses that support those farms. LLF developed the “Growing New Farmers” program that has mentored the likes of Matt Frye, creator of “Roots” Ice Cream, and other aspiring farmers. While encouraging business and consumers to THINK, BUY and BE Local, the initiative also publishes a directory of local independent businesses who do just that. Lowcountry Local First, it seems, could make “locavores” of us all.
“Farm to table” is not reinventing the wheel. It is about celebrating the place in which you live - the soil, the weather, the waters (fresh or salt) and the history. If you examine any city in America, you will probably find this same understated celebration of place. It is a passion for shared family recipes, fresh, seasonal food, and support of that nice guy who runs that produce stand every Saturday. Oh, yeah, he’s a farmer! There is a large part of the American public that is not even aware of the “movement”, yet, they are quietly there — at the Farmer’s Markets, at their dinner tables, and at the restaurants who showcase local products on their menus. Looking at Charleston and her barrier islands through wine goggles, you can taste its flavor. The city and its resources are vinified everyday and consumed by tourists and locals alike. That consumption is sometimes a revelation, other times the beginning of a journey. During the first Saturday at Charleston’s Farmers Market, a father offered his daughter a taste of Root’s beet ice cream. She was young, perhaps better suited to the fresh strawberry/cilantro offering, but the slow dawning smile that lit up her face as she savored the creamy, yet earthy flavor of the beet ice cream signaled her delight at this new discovery.
Nothing says terroir like beets. A friend once described the taste of beets as “like eating dirt“. Kids enjoy eating a lot of dirt until grownups tell them that it’s a bad thing. Perhaps the revolution that is desired by the “farm to table” movement will be won in the evolution of our palates. Maybe we should take a lesson from our kids and eat a little dirt.
by Antonia Krenza & Laney Roberts - Photo by Stacy Howell