Terroir Symposium: The Economics Of Local

Now that I’m in my 30s, presents have become something I treat myself to. They're things I can’t bring myself to spend on, unless it’s for an occasion. But I definitely shell out for an experience.

So I’m glad I bought myself a ticket to the Terroir Symposium as a Christmas present. What an experience!

I’ve wanted to attend for the longest time, since I first came across the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance and their partnership with “Terroir Talks”, which lead up to the yearly symposium. The idea that food producers and growers came together to specifically talk about how the environment – the geography, climate, and history of a place – was something you could taste in a product, was something incredibly inviting to me. The fact that an entire ecosystem - from governing organizations to farmers’ co-ops - existed to promote and study the role of food and drink on tourist experiences, was equally astounding. I wanted to learn and absorb everything I could on the subject.

Because, cheesy as it sounds - I feel that terroir represents who I am today.

My roots are just as firmly in Toronto as they are in the Philippines. I like thinking that I “grew up” and learned about the wider world of food in Canada, through my experiences working in the hospitality and service industry for over 10 years.

I’ve learned about the importance of sustainable food systems and opened my eyes to the many challenges around food security (both locally and within a global context). I’ve tasted a plethora of ingredients and dishes living in Toronto - many of which I’d never heard of before, plus some which I could only have dreamt of sampling (like real truffles and caviar) as a young college student in Manila poring over restaurant and cookery books.

What better place to learn than Ontario! With such a thriving, diverse food scene - as depicted in the lunch offerings at the Terroir Symposium - it’s fantastic that these flavours, these tastes, these stories around food are so easily accessible by anyone who lives near the Toronto area. As food editor Suresh Doss says, “it’s even better than Houston!”.

Here are some highlights from the day. I definitely recommend going if you get the opportunity!

What is terroir?

Terroir is often defined as “the combination of environmental factors, including soil, climate, and geography, that give food and drink their distinctive character.” Most people associate the word terroir with wine, as that’s what’s normally used to describe how the region that grapes are grown in, affect the final outcome of the wine.

While the word itself may still be a little unapproachable for some, what I love about terroir is that it’s what allows us to learn the story of a place – and how a food or wine comes directly from there. In essence, though it can be kind of intimidating – like, not something you talk about on a first date – it holds so much in its meaning, and becomes this little present you get to unwrap each time you come across a locally produced food item.

You get to ask things like, “Why do these muskmelons smell so good?”. Or say “I can’t believe someone raises pigs that look like wooly sheep!” while crushing on a beautifully carved pork chop from a specialty butcher. And you won’t sound silly at all asking questions like “What exactly is ice wine?”.

Learning what goes into the final product - from the region it’s grown in to what’s done after harvesting or processing, to get that food to your plate - is something I greatly value. It adds another dimension to enjoying dinner, particularly for people like me who can’t stop talking about food!

What is culinary tourism?

The Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance defines the term culinary tourism as “any tourism experience in which a person learns about and/or consumes food and drink that reflects the local cuisine, heritage or culture of a place; including the active pursuit of unique and memorable eating, drinking and agritourism experiences.”

Who wouldn’t want to be involved with that?

My partner and I spent a week in Prince Edward County a few summers ago, cycling around on a self-guided winery tour. It was fantastic and one of my favourite food and drink experiences to date. We took our time visiting 3-4 wineries a day, stopping at local restaurants and cafes, chatting with other people on the wine route, relaxing in a cottage by a lake for the night. Personally, I’d choose that kind of itinerary over lounging around an all-inclusive beach resort any day.

To me, making these kinds of food-focused experiences accessible goes a long way towards getting more people to understand the concept of terroir. Particularly, for recent immigrants, or even people who grew up in a different part of the US or Canada - visiting the Great Lakes, driving through acres of vineyards, and hiking through trails along the Canadian shield become incredibly appealing activities, paired with the region’s best food and drink.

Nothing beats tasting something after you’ve set foot on the land it’s grown in!

Highlights from Terroir 2018

Since I’ve got pages of notes from that day’s sessions - I think distilling some of the best parts into a few paragraphs is a good approach.  :)

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University started with an interesting statistic: that 52% of North Americans under the age of 35 are now vegetarian/vegan. This shift, he explains, is meaningful in the larger context of saving our environment; as large numbers of the population choose to remove or reduce their meat consumption, it also corresponds to a larger questioning of where our food comes from. As people ask these kinds of questions, it becomes easier to reach people who are ready for stories about the environment, or terroir, that food grows in.

“Our food fabric is changing fast,” he says. “For consumers looking for different stories, terroir is a path that enables those powerful stories to emerge. The movement has to grow.”

Hearing Chef Elena Arzak of Spain’s three Michelin-starred Restaurant Arzak was easily the highlight of my day. I get goosebumps remembering the passion she delivers her message with!

As Elena describes, “Basque food is matriarchal” and very much connected to its producers - both on the field and in the homes and kitchens of those who live in the area. Locals’ respect for products that are in season drive everyday decisions about what to eat and prepare, exemplified by the use of a “calendario de temporada” or calendar of in-season produce.

“Education is important to convince people that the work we do has the value it has,” she says. “This information on what’s local is so important - because it leads to a ‘sustainable education.’”

The need to connect and collaborate with local researchers is vital, she adds. “It allows them to tell their region’s story.”

Chef Albert Ponzo of the Royal Hotel in Prince Edward County shared his journey to learning about terroir, and how working at one of Toronto’s top restaurants for over ten years shaped his current outlook on food just as much as his cooking style. He’s a farm-to-table advocate through and through and steadfast supporter of 100km foods, Slow Food, the Feast On program by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance and the man behind “Pigstock”, a collaborative dinner where the wooly mangalitsa pig - a heritage breed whose meat rivals the marbling of the best kobe beef - takes centre stage.

In the morning, I attended a wine tasting titled “Women in Wine” and loved every single minute of it. Along with copious (and often hilarious) notes on my sheet for each of the 11 wines we sampled, I scribbled stars next to the names of the female winemakers who shared stories of working in the fields, wineries and places where they sell their bottles. I may have daydreamed about working alongside these winemakers someday!

I really did enjoy sampling an amazing variety of Canadian wines - almost as much as writing about it. I wrote things like “Very good! Traces of apple?” for a glass of sparkling wine, “Great for summer BBQ” on a crisp riesling, “Spice scented” and “I could smell that all day” for a wine made of gamay grapes from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It had a bit of a floral nose to it, but tasted like a strong, full-bodied red wine.

I also definitely thought about Filipino dishes that I’d love to pair with those wines.

My next tasting was called “The Great Ontario Craft Brew” and, as you can guess, I loved every minute of that too. The most important thing I learned was that you could grow all the ingredients to make beer within Ontario. Amazing!

Rob Morra from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. (located in Vankleek Hill, Ontario) and Peter Bulut from Great Lakes Brewery (located 10 minutes from where I live) led the workshop, where they debuted the very special “Yours to Discover” beer - a highly drinkable, collaborative brew between GLB and Beau’s, created just for Terroir 2018. (There really is a lot to discover in Ontario!)

For this beer, they talked about sourcing wild yeast from apples grown near Guelph, Ontario, then using that yeast to inoculate (or jump-start) the process of making beer. No wonder it tasted a bit like caramel and bananas - I guess the fruitiness of yeast swabbed from apples really took hold!

Someone asked how Rob and Peter felt about the amount of craft brewers starting their own businesses. “Does the space feel crowded at all?” he asked. They both laughed and basically said that collaboration kind of grows organically among brewers. “It helps that we all love to drink!” Peter quipped. “Our competitors aren’t other brewers, but really those consumers that we need to ‘win over’ from the big four (mainstream beers).”

I sampled a range of beer styles, from lagered ales (malty with a somewhat creamy mouthfeel), pale ales (a tinge of spicy), a drinkable summer pilsner, beers aged in wine barrels, farmhouse ales (with notes of sourness and an earthy aroma that reminds you of a barn).

At Beau’s, Rob talked about how they’ve had a designer on board since they launched in 2006; they knew that how their beer looked on a shelf would play an important part in their success - and in telling their story. And in selling beer!