The desire to discover terroir, that special sense of place and time, is spreading to new realms bite by bite.
IT ISN’T that odd for a wine-tasting room to headline a night of terroir.
The difference at Urban enoteca is that its series on exploring terroir isn’t just about wine. It’s also a look at the meat from Gleason Ranch, a fifth-generation Washington farm featuring grass-fed beef as robust and rich as any cornfed cow. Star butcher Tracy Smaciarz breaks down a side of beef at the demonstrations and discusses how the flavor of the meat changes with the seasons, how it’s affected by where the animals live and what they eat and the soil where they graze.
“If you were able to take the same breed of cow and bring them from four different parts of the state, they would be so vastly different,” says Melissa Fant, events director for the Sodo tasting room (and Smaciarz’s sister). She remembers, growing up, how the beef from their family’s small homestead in Olympia tasted markedly different from even the beef at their grandfather’s farm in Puyallup.
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The taste of beef is affected by breed, butchery, aging and a host of other factors. But there’s a growing move to recognize that it also carries its own sense of place. That word, terroir, is spreading to new realms bite by bite.
“I’d call (Gleason Ranch) beef an Outdoor Adventure beef. Somebody else’s I might call Grace Kelly beef or Thinking Man’s,” says Carrie Oliver of the Artisan Beef Institute, who leads tastings around the country of beef from small ranches. “There are categories or styles, almost like an oaky chardonnay versus a steely one,” she says.
For those who aren’t entrenched in the world of wine, “terroir” can sound intimidating or precious. But it doesn’t have to be.
“It captures a lot of aspects of things we’re really interested in; it’s shorthand for a bunch of different things,” says Rowan Jacobsen, who wrote a book on the topic, “American Terroir.”
“You talk to the winemakers in France or Europe who are really interested in terroir. It’s not the rich guys, it’s the guys who have been doing it for eight generations, and they’re very humble about it.
“Cheesemakers use it, all the oyster guys use it now, they’re very comfortable with it.”
Honey, coffee and chocolate are all affordable ways to explore terroir. Check out the Chocolopolis stores in Queen Anne and Bellevue, for instance, where owner Lauren Adler classifies chocolates by which part of the world they come from, and can talk about the different tastes of the cacao beans grown in each region.
The Northwest is rich with native examples — “an eating paradise,” Jacobsen says, with more geographic diversity than anywhere else on the coasts.
Researching his book, he highlighted the terroir of Harmony Orchards in Tieton, northwest of Yakima, an unusual outpost in “the greatest and most counterintuitive, apple-growing region on the continent.” The wind-swept orchard is stationed at one of the highest altitudes of any in the country, with desert-like days and cold nights that keep insects at bay.
Jacobsen also walked the oyster beds of Totten Inlet in Puget Sound, smelling what he called the Totten smell, a “bouillabaisse of fennel, pine nuts, dried fruit and fish oil.” The flavors of its shellfish are a function of “geography and geology,” he wrote, affected by the salty water that runs strong there despite the 200 miles separating the inlet from the open ocean, and from the nitrogen and other nutrients washed in from the surrounding land.
Jacobsen also visited the Yu’pik tribe in Emonak, Alaska, whose Yukon River salmon he first found at a trade show: Easily “the best fish I’d ever put in my mouth; rich with nutty and flowery macadamia notes and an oystery sea flavor.”
Almost by definition, most foods with a particular terroir aren’t mass-produced. Mix together the foods from different growing areas and that signature taste gets blurred.
The small number of Gleason Ranch cattle available, for instance, meant Canlis restaurant had to work with the ranchers to get its prime cuts for the fine-dining restaurant’s menu. The meat isn’t available year-round the way most steaks are. (Canlis will have it at various points after the spring, summer and fall slaughters this year.) It doesn’t taste exactly the same throughout the year.
Since there’s plenty of cow left over after the prime cuts are used, Canlis committed to regularly buying cattle and helping sell the rest of it, like the hamburger meat, to other chefs and friends. But it’s worth it, says co-owner Mark Canlis, because it’s got a flavor like nowhere else.
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds salmon fillets*
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Wedges of lime or balsamic vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Place fillets on an aluminum foil-covered baking pan (for easy cleanup). Dust with salt and coriander. Let sit while the oven warms.
Roast salmon for 30 to 40 minutes, depending how rare you want it.
Remove fillets from oven, sprinkle with mint and lime or vinegar.
*Jacobsen recommends a rich salmon like Yukon or Copper River. King salmon can break the bank, but note that Yukon keta salmon is far less expensive and also remarkably rich. It doesn’t deserve the bad rap that some keta gets.
— from “American Terroir”