Where's the beef... from? Why terroir matters for more than wine

At a recent event at Niagara College, food columnist Andrew Coppolino learned why the terroir of beef - the conditions under which cattle are raised - matters to your tastebuds.

Western cattle eat more barley, Ontario cattle eat a lot of corn, affecting taste says prof

Meat from livestock that graze near the seaside, like these cattle in Normandy, France, can take on a salty flavour when cooked, called pré-salé ("pre-salted") in French. (Gary Graves/CBC)

When we think of the term "terroir," many people associate it with wine. 

It is a French term North Americans are largely unfamiliar with, but it is defined as the collection of conditions under which grape vines grow. That includes the entire physical environment such as minerals in the soil, humidity and moisture, sunlight, heat, wind and elevation.

It makes sense that those basic elements – terroir – contribute to how nearly any edible item ends up tasting.

It's a concept that has had culinary professionals like veteran restaurateur Michael Olson rethinking beef.

"I almost feel like we've drawn back the curtain and we're starting a discussion that everyone is saying, 'Wow, why haven't we been talking about this for a long time?' Terroir basically says that we should be able to taste the environment in which a product is raised," Olson, a professor at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College, said during a recent symposium there called 'Taste and Terroir'. 
Michael Olson is a veteran restaurateur and a professor at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. (Canada Beef)

Geography changes taste

It does make sense: the physical geography will determine how things taste. 

Olson refers to pigs that eat acorns in Spain and how jamon Iberico tastes. He describes the unique flavours in agneau  pré-salé, where the lambs have nibbled on grass in the seaside salt marsh meadows of Normandy, France. The meat is literally "pre-salted."

I feel like I've been cooking and eating beef my whole life and I've never really given a thought truly to what it eats.- Niagara College professor Michael Olson

With Canadian beef, he continues, western cattle will eat more barley, Ontario cattle eat a lot of corn, while P.E.I. cattle might munch on cull potatoes. The resulting taste and texture of the beef are different.

The Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence (CBCE) created a tasting framework. That includes learning things like that your beef might have a barnyard-like aroma, it may remind you of cooked liver or have a mild metallic taste. 

When it comes to tenderness, compare chewing a piece of plain white bread with a gummy bear. Consider the degree of juiciness or succulence in meat in terms of eating a slice of banana, a slice of cucumber or an orange segment.

It's the same with other foods. Researchers in the southern United States have experimented with a forgotten heritage melon that grew in the sandy soil of a particular area of Mississippi. Other research has examined if maple syrup might taste different – and perhaps, better – depending on whether the maple trees grow over limestone or shale.
Pigs that eat acorns in Spain changes how jamon Iberico tastes. Same with lambs that nibble on grass in the salty meadows of Normandy, France, that are destined to become agneau pré-salé. Columnist Andrew Coppolino says it makes sense geography places a role in how things taste. (Canada Beef)

More than just buy local

Why should we care? It goes beyond the idea – now, almost a cliché – of local. 

People care about where their food comes from and what went into it. Think of a tomato or lettuce: they are 90 percent water, so some consumers might want the water and nutrients that they draw out of the soil to be clean and healthy.

When it comes to our steak at dinner, we likely consider its triple-A grade or perhaps its Black Angus breed, but what is increasingly recognized as important is what the animal ate and its impact on flavour and texture, Olson said.

"We know that the food we consume, whether it's vegetables or animal protein, is a product of the environment from which it comes," said Olson who, in a moment of culinary epiphany, admitted his interest is piqued knowing where an ingredient came from and what nourished it. 

"All of a sudden, I feel like I've been cooking and eating beef my whole life and I've never really given a thought truly to what it eats."

Read more food columns from CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's food writer Andrew Coppolino


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


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