Lose Merroir... Please
BY TAMAR HASPEL
I farm oysters, and I’ve got a favor to ask: Can we please stop saying merroir?
My husband and I, with our small oyster farm in the waters off Cape Cod, are delighted that people are interested in our product, and want to talk about how it gets its flavor from its environment, and how oysters of the same species taste different when they’re farmed in different places. Thing is, that conversation’s better if we don’t use inside-baseball words that tell us more about the speaker than the oyster.
To understand the word merroir, you have to know both that the word terroir describes wine grapes’ environment, and that mer means sea in French. Get it? Merroir?
How many ordinary people who like to eat know those things? Do we want to communicate, or do we want to demonstrate that we’re part of the cognoscenti, the group that really understands food in a way that ordinary people who like to eat do not? Just how finely can we parse the differences in oysters—or olive oil, or chocolate or wine—before it’s just a badge of membership in our food-centric subculture? Taste the cassis in that Malbec? No? What a shame.
These exercises don’t just alienate people whose lives don’t revolve around food, they put the cognoscenti on some pretty shaky ground; there’s plenty of evidence that people cannot consistently identify the kinds of differences that are the stuff of rating systems and evaluations. Wine experts’ ratings and descriptions, for example, are wildly inconsistent. Give the same expert the same Malbec tomorrow, and she won’t taste the cassis, either.
Even very basic ideas about flavor that become truisms in the food world often do so without any particular scrutiny. Ever heard that wild salmon tastes better than farmed, or that backyard eggs taste better than commercial? So had I. But when I put those ideas to blind taste tests, neither held up.
Which is not to say that oysters—or chocolate, or wine—all taste the same. Of course they don’t! And talking about the differences without slipping into in-group vernacular is challenging. I asked Rowan Jacobsen, a very fine writer and author, most recently, of The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation, how he does it.
“Raising the level of discourse can be intimidating,” he says, “but it can also encourage people to bring their A game to the table.” Make a good-faith effort to describe what a particular oyster tastes like, and maybe, just maybe, people will pay more attention next time they eat one. But Jacobsen is also alive to the danger. “Most wine copy reads like a self-parody that doesn’t get you any closer to capturing the experience, so oyster scribes should think twice before going down that path.”
And merroir? Does he use it?
“I do, but I wince every time.”
Colin Gasko has to walk that same line, but with a different product. He produces chocolate. Very expensive chocolate, at Rogue Chocolatier, in Three Rivers, Massachusetts. “If the food is complex, you run into problems when you try and oversimplify.” On the other hand, going down the merroir rabbit hole can lead to fetishizing, he says. And all of this can be the enemy of helping people enjoy food. “People end up deferring to experts rather than engaging with the food that they eat. It creates a lot of confusion and bullshit.”
My husband and I believe we grow some of the best oysters in the country. We don’t take credit, since oysters really do get their flavor from the environment, and we happen to farm in some of the best oyster-growing waters in the country. But oyster flavors occupy a fairly narrow range. Put ours up against other high-end oysters, and they’ll be different, but the differences will generally be subtle, and will change depending on the season and the weather and a whole host of other factors. It’s great fun to eat a variety and compare them, but fetishize at your peril.
There’s another problem with merroir, and it bugs me even more than the fetishize problem. It gives the impression that farming oysters is a rarified, effete occupation that supplies the cognoscenti with something to parse.
Growing oysters—growing any food—is a dirty, difficult, risky proposition. For starters, there’s hard labor. A lot of it, since oyster farming is hard to mechanize, and oysters are heavy. Much of the work we do involves lifting a bag or a box or a tray full of oysters and dumping it into another bag, box or tray. Over and over, with bags, boxes or trays that routinely weigh 40 or 50 pounds.
You do that, day after day, understanding that, on any one of those days, you could come out and find your entire crop dead, a victim of weather or disease.
And that’s not the only risk. Sometimes, what we do is actively dangerous. In the winter, if your boat gets away from you, you can die out there. My husband, Kevin, is farmer-in-chief in our operation, and often works alone. There have been evenings when the water is cold and the dark comes early, he’s still out there not answering his phone, and I have visions of an anchor line splitting. Merroir kills.
So, how do we appreciate both flavors and farmers without going over the top? Start by using ordinary words in their ordinary sense. Why say merroir when environment will do? Is the taste of cassis really so familiar to you that you can identify it in your wine? And, once we use ordinary words in their ordinary sense, do we really need 10 of ’em? Maybe it’s my pedestrian palate, but I start to strain after about three.
But here’s the fundamental question for those of us who live, breathe, grow, cook and write about food: Do we want to bring people in, or keep people out? Spread the joy, or establish the clique?
Trick question, I know. Given the choice of joy or self-aggrandizement, we all, presumably, pick joy.
So pick joy! And, please, lose merroir.