Sunday, July 14, 2013

Brief note for 14 July

Des idées aux mots, des mots aux idées
The other evening I was reading up on Gertrude Jekyll, whom I hadn’t thought about for many years, while, in the background, on TV, a couple of celebrity chefs were discussing who was committed to terroir and who was a master of ethnic mix as a basis of their creativity.  In New York City as in London and other cities the latter produces gastronomic novelties that are often wonderful (though sometimes simply imitative of the great chefs).  So, does terroir have a figurative meaning such as US urban slang, ‘turf’ has?  As in the old vaudeville song, “Cohen is living the life of Riley now”? (I have the old 78rpm record; the song is jarringly impolite) or, of course, as in West Side Story?  Or, does the French terroir have only its literal sense?  I have only the two-volume OED and the usual Cassel and Langenscheidt dictionaries in my working library, and neither they nor my proper Roget (the dictionary-format one being useless for nuance) answered the question, and the gastronomic profession, like that on bel canto technque, for example, is sometimes merely fashionable, like Eliot’s women talking of Michelangelo.  Sometimes right, but never rigorous.
The Larousse Thésaurus français, one of the books I have and, yes, actually use, seems to answer my question; when she was working in France, what would Jekyll have meant by terroir?  The plants and animals native to the soils peculiar to Provence, or the impact on southern French cooking of Moroccan and Algerian cuisine?  Both make sense.  But terroir evidently always means what ecological writers today would call ‘native’as distinct from ‘intrusive’ or ‘invasive’ (usually hybrids or imports for sale at nurseries).  Jekyll was famous for using native, locally native, plants on the margins of her designed gardens (as she was, too, for her collections of specimens and seeds for the conservancy).  I suppose that she also realized that, as well kept lawns do, this kind of planting made a bulwark against accidental intrusions by both cultivated invaders and wind-borne weeds that otherwise might gain an easier foothold.
Still, you’ll have to ask the chefs what, exactly, they mean by terroir.  It was Jekyll I wanted to be sure about, and I think the French thesaurus was sufficient.  The Larousse French Thesaurus has the best introductory preface and the best explanation of its compilation and use.  It is academic in the fullest sense of the word.

P.S., Yes, I did later realize the proprietary and commercial usage of terroir.  Just think 'Roquefort' and 'Champagne', et al., and go to the Wikipedia.  But it is fun (to me) to work at words in the old-fashioned way.