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Food culture comes full circle on 'terroir'

Many years ago, I lived in Madrid. Already married with children, I ate mostly at home, often cooking meals myself. That, of course, meant shopping at, among other places, my neighborhood fish market.

Having moved to Spain from years of graduate school in the Midwest, I found the fish -- and other seafood -- a wonder. Most wondrous of all was the fact that I could pick between North Atlantic and Mediterranean fish, all perfectly fresh.

Madrid is located in the center of Spain, a good distance from any ocean. The local cuisine is about veal, beef, lamb, pork -- as well as beans and vegetables. Closest fish is trout -- and I ate many a fine trucha a la navarra. But in the country's capital, residents demanded fish from all the coasts of the Iberian peninsula, flown in fresh every day. And they got it.

Thus the great capitals flex their muscle to indulge their palates. In his brief, intellectually rigorous but readable new book, Food Is Culture (Columbia University Press, $22.50), Italian scholar Massimo Montanari notes that our 21st century insistence on having everything from everywhere available all the time (sea bass from Chile, berries from Central America) is nothing new.

Montanari quotes a treatise from a 17th century Italian court chef who boasts of eating "asparagus, artichokes, peas and the like in the months of January and February, when at first glance they would seem to be out of season." All that's needed, writes the chef, is "a good horse and a full purse." That is, the means of transporting the food and the money to pay for it.

It was in such centers of power that, according to Montanari, "the elite classes . . . took pride in consuming fresh fruits and greens out of season, importing them (fresh!) from faraway places."

The thrust of high civilization has been to escape the limitations of the terroir, the local soil.

But attitudes change, and today "terroir" has become a buzzword, first among wine lovers and now among gastronomes. The foodstuffs of seasonal and regional (usually also organic and sustainable) farming are to be found at the highest-end restaurants -- and farmers' markets, nearly always in upscale neighborhoods.

Terroir, once embedded in peasant culture, today is a concept relished by the elite. Not that our society has lost a taste for year-round berries or Maine lobster in Florida. It's just that gastronomes -- again, a culture that flourishes among the elite -- disdain such commercial imports. And with good reason.

Take strawberries. The big California ones at my local supermarket look luscious but taste like, well, nothing. Recently, I found some from Plant City -- I used to live not far from this strawberry-growing town in Hillsborough County and know how tasty they can be. Indeed, even before I saw the label on the box, I could smell them. And then I went to a farmers' market and found some from right here in South Florida. Amazing.

I say "amazing" because in our quest to eat like courtiers in 17th century Italy, to escape the limitations of terroir, we have turned foodstuffs on their head and reached that terrifying quality: nothingness. Food that tastes like nothing. Not even a bad taste. No taste. So now when I find actual taste, I am amazed.

Food culture has come full circle. My quest, like that of anyone who loves food, is to taste the terroir. There are cultures where this is done quite literally, where people will actually eat dirt (as good a translation of terroir as any) -- not as crazy as it may seem, for as Montanari points out, some topsoil actually has nutrients humans can consume.

Let's call that Xtreme terroir gastronomy. I don't want to go there. Nor to 17th century Italy. Only as far back as '60s hippie culture. Organic. Free-range. Seasonal. Regional. Sustainable. When properly applied, all those highly politicized terms first espoused by folk who read The Whole Earth Catalog yield precisely what I want.

Darn good eating.

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