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Local food between nature and culture: from neighbour farm to terroir. Interview of Laurence Bérard

Isabelle Techoueyres

Editor's notes

Shorter version of the original interview in French, done in Bourg-en-Bresse. Translation to English by Isabelle Téchoueyres.

Full text

1V.A.: Laurence Bérard, you stand for one half of the famous Bérard and Marchenay duo whose works on terroir products in France simply cannot be ignored ; this is the reason why you accepted this interview for our AOF issue on local food products. I’ll just start with the plain question: when I say local products, what do you think of?

2L.B.: you’re not saying terroir products, for a change…

3I.T: That’s the point, is there a difference between the French expression terroir products and local products, or again with the English expression “local foods”?

4L.B.: In France, terroir products is an ambiguous expression, this is why we started by giving ourselves a definition in order to know what we’re talking about. We have a rather wide approach of this expression yet we insist on the cultural dimension of such productions. It therefore applies to products which have a historical depth, a history, which have been there for a long time, taking their roots in shared knowledge and know-how. Of course they originate from a specific place, but mainly they are inscribed in a local culture and local society. In fact our definition doesn’t take into account natural factors, although it is usually implicit when talking about terroir. But linking terroir products to natural factors would necessarily mean Denomination of Controlled Origin…. Whereas for us terroir products include all elements that make sense in one geographical area, without necessarily including natural factors.

5V.A.: There is an important difference between a global vision that includes culture and nature on the one hand, and a vision closer to the concrete place which rests essentially on natural factors on the other hand …. Yet cultural… Is there really a difference?

6L.B.: Yes.. well, if you take the definition of terroir for the INAO (National Institute for Denominations of Origin), one could think of a much stricter definition, essentially founded on natural factors, while taking into account of course the historical depth and shared knowledge.. it really is a matter of priority in fact. And it is particularly important to insist on this priority when facing the abusive use of the expression produits de terroir: it comes to encompass farm products, regional products, products of a specific geographic origin…. We therefore wished to differentiate products which make sense and those which don’t make sense. Shared knowledge is the major characteristic for selection. Because shared knowledge really qualifies the product, the bond to the place. Let’s take a concrete example: close to Lyon there is a tradition of tarts, sugar or cream pastries which can be found in every pastry shop; these tarts can be found with cream in Bresse, as sugar tarts in the neighbouring Bugey area, while they just don’t exist in Ardèche or Loire. This means that natural factors have nothing to do with this, yet this is geographically a local product…

7I.T.: so these are terroir products… and what about local foods?

8L.B.: Yes… and “local products” in English, I guess it amounts to the same thing, yet my experience of Anglo-Saxon countries is not sufficient to tell precisely what stands under this expression… In such countries I see more farm products rather than terroir products.

9I.T.: so what is the major difference?

10L.B.: Farm products can be terroir products in some cases but not necessarily. The fact that a product is made in a specific place with raw materials from the place doesn’t necessarily imply that it is a terroir product. For instance in the Dombes area, there is a foie gras producer who makes a farm product since he produces it all on the farm; yet it is not a terroir product because there is no tradition for foie gras production in the Dombes. On the other hand, in the Perigord region, foie gras is a farm product when made on the farm, but it is also a terroir product because it has local roots which make sense locally, with a strong cultural identity.

11I.T.: OK. And to go on with vocabulary matter, when you are in Italy talking with Italians, or in Spain, which words do you use? You may communicate in English, but then which terms do you choose? Do you talk about terroir products, local foods,….?

12L.B.: In Italy, Spain or Portugal, we really talk about the same thing, even though the vocabulary is different. And we have come to the conclusion that the term terroir is in fact quite difficult to translate. Maybe the great diversity of landscapes, of micro-environment in France generates such extreme diversity in productions, that this might explain why in France we are attached to this particular reality…. In Spain it’s “productos de la tierra”, from the soil. In Italy it’s Nostra, ours, our products. Our colleagues often translate terroir products into nostra, meaning “our products” in Italy.

13I.T.: So there is the geo-physical aspect on one side and shared knowledge on the other side: at least these are clearly defined expressions.

14L.B.: Yes, yet it is the same reality. In fact these are “products of origin”, as Eric Thévenot calls them. One could think of a new term which would define products with a meaningful geographical origin. In fact an ideal definition would be “local and traditional agrofood production”, yet it would be difficult to use: impossible in current speech.

15V.A.: Yes unless it is shortened into LTAFP…rather awkward and lacking the historical value of the term terroir…

16L.B.: Yes, so let’s stick to terroir product which refers to local culture and to the fact that in every corner of the world food preferences have emerged, people have clung to them and have developed them… Within the frame of a natural selection, men have made specific choices which they have put forward, and which have shaped the local culture and sense of belonging. Then you have the concrete question of taste and taste construction, transmission and organoleptic preferences.

17V.A.: Let’s go back to my question- frame… the expression local products is composed of 2 fundamental terms: local and product. If one looks at the concept alliances from different perspectives, one can imagine a) a product characterised by a place, b) a place characterised by a product. Which of these 2 perspectives seems the most pertinent to you?

18L.B.: Well….it’s a product characterized by a place. However considering the increasing importance of such products, it sometimes becomes... a place characterized by a product. It is influenced by the use made of the product in the local development, by the power of fame and the economic and commercial impact. Take Montélimar, one generally thinks of nougat… yet for me it is the place which gives characteristics to the product.

19V.A.: Therefore the place is paramount, isn’t it? “local” comes from the Latin word localis, an adjective meaning local, place…no doubt the place is central in local products…

20L.B.: and yet the place in itself doesn’t generate anything in particular. We often cite the case of Sisteron lamb: it is called from Sisteron because that’s where the slaughter house is. But the animals come from anywhere in the world! and being slaughtered in Sisteron, it becomes Sisteron lamb… so… When the place is meaningless, when it is not linked to any specificity, it is just a diversion of meaning, or more precisely a distortion of image. The place must make sense: time and shared knowledge, tradition….

21I.T.: It is therefore impossible to make new terroir products nowadays.

22L.B.: Well I’m not sure we can continue to make terroir products. Local society, rural society has terribly changed, agriculture is not as paramount….and European policy… I wonder about the conditions which make possible the emergence of terroir products… maybe with revivals, new visions which would not be directly linked to the rural society, but rather to local society as a whole… maybe such products wouldn’t be generated by the rural society the way it functioned in the 1950s, but by other social vectors…we’ll see… there are plenty of those revival phenomenons…

23I.T.: so it maybe that in some countries, the difference between terroir products and local products makes little sense, or doesn’t really matter…

24L.B.: Yes, the meaning is not as acute.

25I.T.: It all depends on the way you look at it…

26L.B.: Yes, and there are implicit aspects. In fact it depends on world visions. In the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly with Americans, brand names are paramount. So far they have refused to bother with geographical origin which they consider as barriers for trade. You’re really facing 2 opposite logics: in Europe the principle of protection of a product linked to a geographical name is accepted, implying that trademarks must comply with this constraint, with this logic. Their legitimacy is recognized. But even in France brand names have better visibility than denominations of origin because of the multiplication of labels and quality signs, and consumers simply cannot make out the difference between Label Rouge, AOC1 (Appellation d’Origine Controlée), IGP2 (Protected Indication of Origin), Certification of Compliance, organic label… this is the danger! Whereas in the United States today there is no place to claim specificity linked to a geographical origin, it is simply denied. Same thing in Australia.

27V.A.: So how can consumers be influenced? And talking about the success of such products among consumers: is it really a success, are consumers really in demand for such products? Or is it just that these are being talked about a lot, producers communicate a lot therefore ensuring a better visibility of these products?

28L.B.: I think it’s both. But to start with I think that consumers are in demand for products for which they know the origin, the making of, although they are more and more cut off from production realities. Yet no doubt we are what we eat and what we eat makes us what we are, therefore…consumers are very anxious of what they swallow.

29I.T.: So to conclude, what future can you foresee for terroir products, local products? Do you think choices should be made towards better protection?

30L.B.: Well, first we cannot approach this matter through industrial logics and large volumes. You cannot give satisfaction to all consumers. Such productions must retain what makes up their specificity in order to satisfy 5 or 10% of consumers who are curious to discover foods with specific tastes. But this is not easy because even in AOC, industrial groups take an important place; for them requirements must be simplified and they want to work with pasteurised milk because it is more profitable… and most urgent is to think about suitable hygiene norms. Such norms must be improved, to fit each particular case in order to save producers from dying out.

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1 The French PDO
2 The French PGI
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Electronic reference

Isabelle Techoueyres, « Local food between nature and culture: from neighbour farm to terroir. Interview of Laurence Bérard », Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 24 March 2017. URL :

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Isabelle Techoueyres

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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