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The Flavor of Place

Glaciers set the stage for Wisconsin’s pristine pastureland, and European immigrants found the region similar to their homeland; dairy farming followed naturally. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Selling a food’s terroir relies on telling the tale of how that flavor came to be

By Susan Johnston

Crafting a flavor story around a certain ingredient, menu item or restaurant taps into emotional cues to deepen a customer’s relationship with all of them. We know this through terroir, or the “flavor of place.” The idea is an old one: A food’s characteristic flavor profiles grow out of its surrounding environment — including the air, soil, vegetation, climate, even the cultural history of a place.

The flavor of place can be a powerful new hook when marketing a dish on the menu. From the rocky coastlines of Maine to the high desert of Idaho, here’s a look at four iconic regional commodities that have successfully rooted their brands in their terroir. As a growing number of consumers notice where their food comes from, these timely stories of origin can help operators captivate consumers and differentiate their menus.

Wisconsin’s mild summers and ample rain and snow produce lush green pastures, an idyllic setting for grazing cattle. Nutrients in the rich grass, including vitamin A and carotenoid compounds, contribute to the flavor, color and nutritional makeup of the milk Wisconsin cows produce. The bioactive compounds in the milk, in turn, help produce the soft, buttery yellow hue for which some Wisconsin cheeses are known.

Its landscape isn’t the only reason Wisconsin developed a rich history of cheesemaking, which was brought to the region in the late 1800s by immigrants from England, Switzerland, Germany and Ireland.

“That ethnic mix determined the flavors that were going to be produced. It’s an ethnic terroir,” says Edward Janus, author of Creating Dairyland (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011), which chronicles the history of Wisconsin’s dairies.

“Wisconsin was in terrible trouble economically,” Janus explains. But most of the early pioneers had a cow, so they began making homegrown cheeses. “The first commercial cheeses made in Wisconsin were of the cheddar variety. Wisconsin cheesemakers were trying to find a cash market — and England was a great cash market for cheese.”

Wisconsin cheese quickly became synonymous with quality. In 1921, the state led the nation when it created its own rigorous cheese-grading program for all Swiss, cheddar, Colby/Jack, brick and Muenster cheese produced there.

Wisconsin’s elite cheesemaking tradition lives on in the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program, the only advanced cheese-training program of its kind outside of Europe. To achieve Master level in a single style of cheese, cheesemakers with a decade of experience must study for an additional three years and pass a 40-hour written exam.

These high standards and regional cachet translate to premium prices. According to Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) research, consumers are willing to pay more for cheese identified as coming from Wisconsin; the specific premium depends on variables such as cheese variety. Some 89 percent of consumers surveyed say they’re more likely to purchase cheese labeled as Wisconsin cheese, and 90 percent believe Wisconsin cheese is higher quality and tastes better than cheese made elsewhere. They spread the word through farmers markets and dairy tours, says Heather Porter Engwall, WMMB’s director of national product communications.

In 2004, WMMB adopted the tagline “Where it comes from matters.” It helps marketing and advertising campaigns emphasize the importance of place, a message that’s sinking in. Over the past several years, Engwall says that an increasing number of restaurants list the origins of their cheese, sometimes even including the name of the cheesemaker, on menus.

“Chefs are really passionate about telling the local stories of Wisconsin cheesemakers,” she says. “They want to have a connection with the cheesemaker, and they want to share that connection with their patrons — everything from location and the type of grass the cows graze on to the type of milk they produce. These local stories are a great way to sell our cheese in restaurants.”

Sweet, versatile onions from Eastern Oregon and Idaho benefit from the region’s terrain and rich history. Photo courtesy of Idaho Farm Bureau.
Thanks in part to its growing conditions — including well-drained volcanic soil rich in nitrogen and potassium, hot, sunny days and cool, dry nights due to its high elevation — Idaho is famous for its potatoes. In fact, more than 300,000 acres there are devoted to potatoes, producing a third of all spuds in the United States.

During the potato-growing season, southern areas of the state receive an average of just 11 inches of rain. The comparative dryness can help prevent fungal diseases in the potato crop. But supplemental irrigation also allows growers to control moisture levels, says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC). That way, the region yields dense potatoes that are high in solids and starch and low in water content — qualities that make them especially crispy when fried.

Idaho’s potato tradition began with the Russet Burbank variety, created by a horticulturalist by the name of Luther Burbank. The Russet, as it’s commonly known, is a large, brown-skinned, white-fleshed potato that becomes crispy when fried or dry and fluffy when baked.

“This variety loved the soil and weather conditions,” Odiorne says. “It thrived here like no other state, because we can add moisture when we need to, and we don’t depend on Mother Nature.”

In the 1980s, Russet Burbanks made up more than 90 percent of the state’s potatoes. It became such a symbol for the region that it went to court: A trial spanned more than 10 years and three judges before a jury finally concluded that “Idaho” is not a generic term for any Russet potato. Now, Russets account for closer to half of potatoes grown in Idaho, as growers have expanded in recent years into niche varieties such as Yukon Golds, Fingerlings and Reds.

No matter the variety, Idaho’s quality control remains rigorous. The state uses U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors to examine its potatoes and only allows potatoes that are U.S. Grades No. 1, Standard and No. 2 to leave the state with the “Grown in Idaho” seal. Lower quality, “utility” potatoes cannot leave the state as fresh. The state minimum size requirement exceeds the USDA’s minimum specifications. The Commission has registered the “Idaho potato” and the “Grown in Idaho” seal to ensure that potatoes labeled as such are from Idaho; doing so protects the premium brand that has taken 75 years to build.

Odiorne says consumer preference for Idaho potatoes ranks in the upper 80th percentile. “Consumers, chefs and operators pay more, on average, for Idaho potatoes,” Odiorne says. “Part of the reason is performance, and part is a strong brand identity.”

Consumers associate Idaho potatoes with the words “fresh,” “homegrown, “great taste” and “quality.” Operators prefer Idaho’s flavorful and denser, smaller-celled potatoes because they shrink very little during cooking. And less shrinkage equals more potato profit.

The volcanic soil in Idaho and neighboring Eastern Oregon’s Snake River Valley provides fertile, nutrient-rich terrain for growing Spanish onions. Volcanic soil provides nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and iron, all of which contribute to the onion’s flavor profile and long storage life (up to nine months). Decomposed volcanic rock is also known to distribute and hold water throughout the soil better than clay.

“Our warm days and cool nights facilitate really nice sugars, so our brix [the sugar content of fruits and vegetables] are high for the Spanish variety of onion,” says Sherise Jones, marketing director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee. “Our onions have a very low water content, high solid content, and high sugar levels. That sugar comes out as the onions are cooked, so they hold their texture really well.” They’re also sweet enough to eat raw.

The region’s onion farmers — many third- and fourth-generation — plant approximately 21,000 acres of onions each March and April, then harvest the crop between August and October, producing more high-quality storage onions than any other region in the country. With the use of state-of-the-art storage facilities, the onions are available from August until the following spring.

The Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, which represents more than 300 growers and 36 shippers in southwestern Idaho and Malheur County, Oregon, is the only storage onion region in the country operating under Federal Marketing Order 958. The order governs the grade, size and quality of the onions grown in the region, setting a higher standard than the USDA.

In promoting this story to foodservice operators and consumers, Jones says the Committee uses online and printed materials to play up the onion’s sweet flavor and versatility. Thanks to their size and ability to hold their shape, onions grown in this high desert region are ideally suited for the popular deep-fried onion “blossoms” served in many casual restaurants. They also work well sautéed, in soups and stews, grilled, or caramelized, Jones says.

The Committee sells the region’s rich agricultural history and terroir to differentiate its onions in a crowded market.

“We really are America’s local onion grower,” Jones says. “We’ve been in this for a long, long time. When you can get a nice storage-friendly onion that is easy to prep and does not have to be processed, it has really become the onion of choice for foodservice.”

Lobsters are synonymous with Maine, where hard-working lobstermen harvest the crustaceans by hand. Photo courtesy of Maine Lobster Promotion Council.
Terroir extends to the ocean floor, too. Thanks to its considerable coastline and more than 140 years of sustainable harvesting, Maine’s lobster is legendary. The state passed its first conservation law in 1872, banning the harvesting of egg-bearing female lobsters, a law that remains in effect today. Earlier this year, the Marine Stewardship Council awarded “sustainable” certification to the Maine lobster fishery, which provides third-party credibility for its sustainable practices.

Homarus Americanus, the breed of lobster found in Maine, lives as far south as North Carolina. Yet Maine fisheries harvest more lobster than all other states combined. In fact, the state’s fisheries harvested 123 million pounds of lobster in 2012. Unlike fisheries in other areas, each Maine lobster is trapped by hand one trap at a time, which allows for more careful harvesting.

Marianne Lacroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, says people associate Maine with lobster because of the state’s rich history and its 3,000-plus miles of coastline.

“There are numerous fishing harbors and fishing villages along the coast, and lobstering is an economic staple in many of them,” Lacroix says.

Fingers of land and protected tidal rivers and bays along the coast provide an ideal setting for Maine’s cold-water lobster. The coast’s rocky and sandy bottoms create a range of environments for lobsters over the course of their lifecycle. Small lobsters can hide from larger predatory fish in nurseries within protected coves. In winter, lobsters move to deeper waters off shore to avoid fluctuating temperatures; as the water warms in summer, they move closer to shore.

Homarus Americanus is distinguished by its meaty front claws. Spiny or rock lobsters harvested from warm waters off Florida, southern California and the Caribbean do not have claws; their meat comes exclusively from the tail, which has a firmer texture.

Many lobster lovers prize the sweet, briny flavor of “new shell” lobsters — those harvested during the transition from their tough, old shell into a newer, larger shell. The theory is that Maine’s cold water “marinates the meat” in the lobster shell, Lacroix says.

The Maine Lobster Promotion Council shares this terroir story through its website and brochures distributed to the media, retail outlets and consumers. Lacroix says the most popular section is the website’s recipe section, which includes more than 400 ways to prepare lobster — from Maine Lobster Benedict to Maine Lobster Rangoons.

Yet the strength of the “Maine lobster” brand may be the council’s biggest marketing challenge. A recent joint campaign with the Champagne region of France features Maine lobster as a product whose origin is also central to its identity.

“[France is] struggling with wines called ‘Champagne’ that may not be produced in Champagne,” explains Lacroix. “We see that, too. We want people to use the ‘Maine lobster’ brand name only when they serve or sell our lobsters.” Anything else is simply Homarus Americanus.

Growing interest among consumers and producers in a food’s provenance offers restaurateurs a fresh opportunity to distinguish themselves. Highlighting terroir stories can elevate their menus from mere lists of ingredients. Traced to their origins, those same ingredients draw a figurative map of the nation’s finest food-producing regions.

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