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Exploring terroir product meanings for the consumer

Philippe Aurier, Fatiha Fort and Lucie Sirieix


Food products’ origin and specifically local origin (“terroir”) has become a factor of differentiation and added value for food companies. The so-called “terroir” indication can enhance the perceived quality and the inferences from the regional image on the products image. The results of an exploratory study based on in depth interviews, focus groups and questionnaire survey show that terroir product, from the consumer point of view, constitutes a cognitive category characterized with three intrinsic dimensions: (1) “trade-skill”, including “know-how”, “recipe” and “tradition”; (2) “time and culture”, including “history” and “ritual”; and (3) “origin”, including “territory”, “region” and “land”. The link between these dimensions and different representations associated to the terroir category demonstrates that the “time and culture”, a dimension connoting nostalgia, plays the most important role.

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1Reference to origin and terroir1 has become a factor of differentiation and added value for food product companies because it enhances perceived quality and transfers the image and attitude toward the region to the promoted products. Terroir products are perceived as natural and authentic because they make reference to a limited area where natural conditions and know-how of producers provide special characteristics to the product. Moreover, there is a transfer of beliefs associated with the area, in terms of history and culture, toward the product. Thus, terroir is generally viewed as making reference to a geographical area (trough the name of the product, the brand, the signals of quality), but also to the reputation of the place in terms of culture, history, people skills, etc.

2The terroir product concept is subject of many definitions that make it hazy and has maybe enlarged the gap between producers’ (and professional organizations) conceptualizations and its corresponding representation in the mind of consumers.

3We propose in this paper to understand the terroir product concept from the consumer point of view within the food domain. In this perspective, we will try to identify: i) the main criteria which are at the basis of categorization of a product as a “terroir product”, ii) the main consequences and inferences associated with the categorization as a terroir product, in terms of perceived quality, packaging, place of production and distribution…

4For marketing managers, these results will provide some guidelines for positioning strategies and product design, in order to facilitate the categorization as a terroir product and improve the corresponding transfer of image and attitude toward the promoted products.

5In the first section we will present our literature review followed, in the second section by a qualitative investigation. In the third section, we will present the results of a quantitative survey characterizing the features of a terroir product and the corresponding associations in the mind of consumers.

Research background and objectives

6In this section we will review existing definitions of the concept of terroir product, discuss the literature on COO2 effects in the perspective of terroir, examine the potential categorization processes involved in judgments about terroir products and present the objectives of the research.

Terroir products: concepts and definitions

7Confronted with an increasingly competitive and internationalized market, small- and medium sized firms seek strategies to differentiate their products and create more perceived value. One of these strategies has been to develop private or collective formal (like PDO3 or IGP4) or informal quality signals and labels. The origin (or terroir) of the product is one among these informal signals.

8The French term “produit de terroir” is translated here as “terroir product”. This expression is quite recent but has been increasingly used since the beginning of the 90’s, both by producers and retailers. Academics and practitioners have proposed a number of definitions and typologies5. Three characteristics are common across most of these definitions:

  • a product made of local raw materials, the original dimension of the earlier definitions of the terroir product. This characteristic constitutes a necessary condition in the PDO quality signal;

  • a localized and traditional recipe or know-how, bearing on the reputation, culture and history of the place of production;

  • a product, where the only link to the terroir is the location of the firm in the region for a long time.

9For products meeting these characteristics, the terroir indication constitutes a summary and a guarantee about the place, conditions and know-how of that place.

Country of origin and terroir

10Due to several crises in the food sector, consumers feel more concerned about the origin of the product, production process, and technical composition. Their search for reinsurance has led to the development of a number of quality seals based on the origin. Consequently, many packaged products show, beside their brand, their region of origin.

11The influence of the place of origin on a product evaluation has been studied through the Country-Of-Origin literature (Van Ittersum et al., 2003). It is still unclear whether COO must be considered as an extrinsic attribute6, which does not influence the perceived performances but provides information used by individuals to infer quality judgments7. In this perspective, COO could be considered as an indicator fulfilling a lack of intrinsic information cues8 and play the same role as any other extrinsic cue like brand, price or warranty of retailer9. As a consequence, some authors consider COO as a quality signal10.

12Van Ittersum et al. (2003) tested a model where attitude towards the region of origin is assumed to summarize the image of the region and influence both directly and indirectly product preference through product attribute perception and product-specific regional image. This model works only if the image of the region is perceived as congruent with the image of the product11.

Terroir viewed as a cognitive category

13Categorization is considered as a fundamental cognitive activity allowing individuals to organize their knowledge in order to facilitate their decisions. The region of origin can be considered as a cognitive category in which some products are perceived as more typical than others. The associated categorization process is based on perceived similarity (typicality or exemplarity) between the focal object and the prototype summarizing the category. Typicality is the degree to which an object is representative of its cognitive category and a typical product must posses the main features associated to the category.

14Typicality judgment can be used in case of uncertainty because of a lack of information or, conversely, when the amount of information is too high in comparison with the individual cognitive capabilities. Then, on the basis of a typicality judgment, individuals will transfer their knowledge and affect from the category (for instance the terroir product category) toward a specific product under evaluation (for instance a « Pélardon des Cévennes 12 – France »). If individuals have a positive attitude toward the terroir product category, the typicality of a « Pélardon des Cévennes » as a terroir product will facilitate the transfer of knowledge and attitude to this product. In this situation, the relation between typicality and preference is generally observed: the more typical the product, the more it will be preferred13.

General method

15Our literature review underlines the role of the categorization as a terroir product and the importance of the perceived congruity between the the product under evaluation and the terroir product category. In order to be favorably evaluated, a product must be categorized as a terroir product. Understanding this process appears important to explain how and under which conditions a product can benefit from the terroir image and attitude.

16The main objective of this research is to identify and characterize the main factors at the basis of a terroir product categorization judgment. This can help academics and practitioners to have a better understanding of:

  • the theoretical content of the concept of terroir, from the consumers’ point of view, i.e. the intrinsic characteristics associated to the corresponding cognitive category: place of production, incorporated traditions, skills;

  • the concrete and extrinsic characteristics upon which individuals elaborate their categorization judgments as a terroir product: packaging, type of store where it must be sold, the relation with price, communication…

17The food product constitutes a relevant category to study the terroir concept due to its natural and strong link with the geological, climatic, cultural, sociological characteristics of the production area. Due to the complexity of the concept of terroir and the corresponding lack of existing research, we implemented an exploratory research, comprising qualitative interviews followed by a quantitative survey. The qualitative study involved 12 in-depth personal interviews and 3 focus groups interviews. The analysis of this qualitative material generated a set of relevant variables that were used to develop a questionnaire administrated to a sample of 53 individuals.

Qualitative study: the image of terroir products according to consumers

18The qualitative study involved 12 in-depth personal interviews and 3 focus groups. The same interview guide was used in both types of interviews, including the following points: perceptions and beliefs of the general food product category; evocations associated to the terroir product category, description of « ideal » and « worst » terroir products; and finally a comparison between two terroir products in terms of shared characteristics: i) a cheese named « TERROIR » branded by a big and industrial perceived company and ii) a cheese « Pélardon des Cévennes » with the label PDO, produced by a very small company (see appendix 1).

19The qualitative material gathered from personal interviews and focus groups (recorded and typed) was content analyzed according to the thematic method (Bardin, 1977). The codification phase involved two judges and two stages: first each interview was cut into themes constituted by sentences considered to be equivalent according to the context, objectives and concepts. A functional analysis chart was then built and applied to each interview. A crosschecking of the individual analysis allows us to identify the common recurrent topics that we present in this paragraph.

Products origin and perceived sources of terroir

20Two dimensions appear thanks to the analysis, a geographic and cultural and historical dimension.

A geographic dimension: the link between products and land

21A « terroir » product is, according to consumers, a product linked to the « region », the « territory » and the « land ». Thanks to 19th century anthropologists, we are aware of the strong relationship between what one eats and what he is or thinks to be, and we understand that when someone eats a « terroir » product, he feels like if he incorporated the territory with the product.

22The identification function is important too. Origin is a cue that allows consumers to identify the product. Consumers also try to check the link between the product and the production area, depending on natural and climate conditions in the region: « According to me, a terroir product is specifically a product that grows up naturally in the region. It is what can be found easily in the region where I am ».

23Another important function is the link between terroir and « open country »: the youngest respondents clearly associate terroir products with raw, natural products, as opposed to processed food.

A cultural and historical dimension

24The reference to a special « know-how », « tradition » and « recipe » is important too. A terroir product must not be produced elsewhere because it is linked to the history and culture of the region: « …there is also the know-how, something that needs time, experience, tradition that cannot be produced everywhere ». This can be related to consumer’s anxiety due to the distance between themselves and the processed product. Consumers try to find out products with a special origin, because they think the origin gives sense to the products (Dubois, 1998).

Representations and evocations associated with “terroir”

25The different associations identified in this qualitative research were summarized as follows:

The perceived proximity between producer and consumer

26Perceived proximity, both from a psychological and geographical point of view, seems to be an important association with the cognitive terroir product category.

Proximity with the region

27Knowing a region includes also knowing its most typical food products and not only its monuments or tourist areas. Consumers develop links between the food products of a region and pictures, souvenirs, stories…

Proximity with the product

28In France, the first association coming up to the mind of most consumers when one evokes terroir products is « a basic product », such as wine, cheese or pork butchery. These products are traditionally produced in a specific geographic area. This proximity is generally based on consumer’s previous experience with the product.

Proximity with the producer

29This dimension is often evoked: « a small producer, I know him and he makes good products ». This perceived proximity leads sometimes to a feeling of involvement and social responsibility like « I buy my products from small producers so as to allow them to live », « Small producers are like friends, you must help them ».

The image of the production system

30A terroir product is generally associated with a production style as « craft », « small scale producer », « traditional », « from a farm ». Conversely, « industrial » products are opposed to the image of terroir: « To me, as soon as a product is industrialized, it is no more a terroir product ». « It must remain a small production, not an industrialized one ». Besides, the fact that each terroir producer is different and terroir products are not standardized, is perceived as a guarantee of their authenticity: « If it is a product for which there is a norm, it is no more terroir ».

The place of purchase

31According to respondents, a « true » terroir product must be bought in an open market place or at the farm, places where a contact with the producer is possible. It looks like if the producer’s identity was carried out by the product: « I am glad to buy products where they are produced, because it is a place linked with the landscape, the way people speak, et cit is not the same when you buy a terroir product in a supermarket or in a foreign country: you do not have all that coming around with the product ». Distribution channels must be as short as possible: producers on a market or at the farm, talk about their products, let people taste them… Consumers perceive them as more authentic than products sold in supermarkets. They are more confident. If a consumer is not satisfied with a product, he knows physically who is responsible and whom he can complain to: « You deal with one person. There is a relation of trust and responsibility. If we are dissatisfied, we have the opportunity to complain next time ». Conversely, if a terroir product is sold in a supermarket, distrust may be important.

The look: type of packaging, brand, PDO label, …

32« A terroir product is self selling, it doesn’t need any marketing or promotion to attract consumers ». A « true » terroir product is sold with a very simple packaging and information about the producer. If a terroir product is perceived as too much marketed, it is not considered as authentic. For instance, the « terroir » cheese launched by Bridel was negatively perceived by the respondents, due to the industrialized image of the brand and the misfit between this brand and the cognitive category of terroir products. Similarly, the packaging must be as simple as possible, with an old fashioned appearance and not « too clean ». Consumers must be able to see the product and even manipulate it. Sophisticated packaging is rejected.

33Product name and indications on packaging must be simple: preferentially no brand and no advertising: « Pélardon, it looks like more old-fashioned, more “small firm”. It is less clean, more related to craft, less flashy ». The worst terroir product is « a product that is not really a terroir product but tries to look like, with a special packaging and an old-fashioned name… products based on an advertising strategy ».

34If brands are not important, consumers pay more attention to official quality signals such as PDO label, since they are considered as a guarantee of their authenticity: « I see the PDO label on Pélardon packaging, it is the first thing I will look for since there are a lot of varieties of cheese that can look quite similar, but do not have the label ».

Images associated with the region of the product

35« When purchasing a terroir product, it is just as if you buy the image of the place, not only the quality ». A terroir product allows escapism, back to the past, to a familiar context, or just « elsewhere ». In this last situation, terroir products are an answer to a seek for stimulation and exotism. This affective dimension looks very important: terroir products are a mix of tradition and idealization of the past.

36Terroir products also allow to discover a region or a culture. They « tell the story of the inhabitants », allow to understand their way of life, their way of thinking, and can help integration into a local social group.

Taste and typicity

37Terroir products rely on a strong and typical taste that cannot be found elswhere. « Terroir has a unique taste », due to a combination of product qualities and natural and human ability or skills. Like taste, product characteristics must be unique but vary across producers or seasons and places. A terroir product must not be perceived as standardized. It must be associated with a unique producer.

Quantitative study

38As a first attempt to quantify the qualitative results, we used a sample of 53 face-to-face interviews, controlling for demographic variables (gender, age, professional activity, residence area): 60% were women and 40% men, 77.5% of the respondents were between 25 and 54 years old. Students and employees were the most represented categories (respectively 24 and 35%). Respondents completed a self-administered questionnaire. Due to the small sample size, we implemented analyses only at the aggregate level.

Concepts and measurements

39The different traits identified in the qualitative research were systematically operationalzed in the questionnaire.

Perceived sources of terroir: intrinsic characteristics

40To capture the following dimensions: « territory », « region », « land », « open country », « history », « ritual », « know-how », « recipe », and « tradition », the question was of the form: « From your own point of view, what determines that a product is a “terroir product” is… ». Respondents had to give their level of agreement on a five-point Likert scale.

Extrinsic characteristics associated with the terroir product category

41What are the representations associated with the knowledge that a particular product comes from terroir? In this perspective, we measured 68 associations identified in the qualitative study.

42The image of the production system was studied through the type of production (industrial, craft, mass, small scale producer, traditional, coming from a farm) and place of production (reputation of the production area, link between product and production area, know-how in the region, natural conditions in the region, participation to the local development, coming from a bio-production system, less consumption of natural resources, less pollution).

43The place of purchase was studied through the following items: supermarket, market, producer, retail store;

44The physical appearance (look) was studied through the following items: type of packaging, brand, label (PDO, …);

45The perceived proximity between producer and consumer was studied through the following items: psychological proximity and geographical proximity;

46The evocations (escapism) were studied through a number of items relative to the images associated with the region of the product;

47Taste and typicity were studied through the following items: unique, standard, easy to reproduce.

48All these associations (one item per association) were measured using 5-point Likert scales (see appendix 3 for the exact list of these associations).

Involvement, perceived quality and attitude toward « terroir » products

49Involvement, perceived quality and attitude are three important concepts characterizing the relationship between a consumer and a specific object, here the terroir product category. These concepts were measured using existing scales adapted from the literature (Evrard and Aurier, 1996, for involvement; Broniarczyk and Alba, 1994, Yoo and Donthu, 2001, for attitude). First, these scales respectively included 3, 4 and 5 items. Two items measuring perceived quality and one measuring involvement were dropped and the resulting three constructs demonstrate a satisfying internal consistency (coefficients, table 1). Convergent and discriminant validity were examined on the basis of a simultaneous exploratory factor analysis (EFA) of the items from the three constructs. We can observe that each item loads significantly only on its supposed underlying factor (appendix 2).

Importance and structure of perceived sources of terroir

50Table 1 presents means and standard deviations for items measuring the sources of terroir. All items have a mean significantly greater than 3 (the middle point), excepted « history », « open country » and « ritual » which are not significantly different from 3 (group C, table 1).

Table 1. Perceived importance of the sources of « terroir »

From your own point of view, what determines that a product is a « terroir » product is…


Standard-deviation (s)


4,48 (A)



4,27 (A)



4,10 (A)



4,08 (A)



3,64 (B)



3,62 (B)



3,10 (C)


Open country

2,88 (C)



2,77 (C)


Means with the same letters are not significantly different, at the 5% level

51Out of nine sources of « terroir » identified in the qualitative study, six can be considered as important and, again, be separated into two groups: « know-how », « tradition », « region » and « recipe » (group A, table 1) are significantly more important than « territory » and « land » (group B, table 1). We can observe that standard deviations increase as means decrease: there is a large heterogeneity of opinions along the three less important criteria, « history », « open country » and « ritual ».

52On the basis of this analysis, we implemented an exploratory factor analysis (using oblique rotation) to understand the structure of perceived sources of terroir. The structure of eigen values suggests a three factor structure, explaining 64% of the total variance:

  • a « trade-skill » factor, including « know-how », « recipe » and « tradition »;

  • a « time and culture » factor, including « history » and « ritual »;

  • a « origin » factor, including « territory », « region » and « land »;

53The factors are slightly correlated, with only one significant correlation (r = 0.29) between “trade-skill” and “time and culture”.

Table 2. Perceived sources of « terroir » (3 factor solution – promax rotation)


Time and culture

























(Correlations smaller than 0,30 are not presented)

Relationships between perceived sources and associations to terroir

54We then examined the respective role of each source of « terroir » (factors extracted in the EFA: trade-skill, time and culture, origin) on extrinsic associations coming to mind when a product is categorized as a « terroir product ». In this perspective, we computed the correlations between the three individual factor scores (one by factor extracted from the EFA) and the 68 items used to measure these extrinsic associations (see appendix 3 for the table of correlations).

55Over these 68 items, 5 are related to « trade-skill », 10 to « origin » and 16 to « time and culture » (at a risk alpha level of 5%). Table 3 provides a synthesis of the analysis of these correlations.

56« Time and culture » seems to play a major role at influencing associations. In the meaning of this important factor, nostalgia plays a determinant role (Holbrook, 1993). Terroir is then important at satisfying the need for authenticity associated with the representation of an « idealized old time » were production processes were free of economic orientation pushing humanity to falsify the nature. Then, terroir product consumption appears to be a way for individuals to escape from their actual « falsified modern reality » and go back to an idealized original order of things they can incorporate to their body.

57Aside this emotional dimension, the « origin » factor certainly plays a role at « consuming the region ». Terroir products come directly from a well-determined geographic area, a specific land. The consumption of a terroir product is a way to appropriate this land, to keep in touch or develop a relationship with the region where a person grew up, have been living or discovered during holidays. These results are convergent with those of Fournier (1998), Richins (1994).

58Conversely, « trade-skill » appears to be less influential on the representation associated with terroir: the way a product is manufactured and the corresponding skills of the inhabitants is finally less important in the representations.

Table 3. Synthesis of links between the three factor sources of « terroir » and associations

Links with associations to production system

« origin » is correlated with « produced by a small producer ».
« time and culture » is correlated with the recall of the region.
« time and culture » is correlated with « less consumption of natural resources » and « less pollution ».

Links with associations to place of purchase, packaging, brand, and label

« origin » is correlated with « sold at the producer plant » and « sold in the region of production only ».
« trade-skill » is correlated with « a packaging were you can see the product »,
« time and culture » is correlated with « a packaging minimum ».
« origin » is correlated to the label « AOC ».

Links with associations to evocations and perceived proximity

« trade-skill » and « origin » are correlated with « region of origin of the product ».
« time and culture » is correlated with « nearness production ».
« time and culture » is correlated with several evocations « a region where you leaved », « a product when I was a child », « a product discovered on vacations or during a travel », « culture », « way of life », « history », « family ».

Links with associations to perceived typicality

« origin » is correlated to « a unique product ».

Perceived “terroir” and involvement, perceived quality and attitude

59We studied the correlations between the three sources of « terroir » and involvement, perceived quality and attitude toward « terroir » products (see correlations in appendix 2).

60Only « time and culture » is correlated with perceived quality. As a consequence, perceived quality appears to come more from past culture, nostalgia than from objective skills and process characteristics. This important result underlines that the main source of perceived quality is not, in the case of terroir, factual, but typically symbolic. People are not really consuming terroir product for intrinsic technical reason but more for the meaning they bring. This confirms previous results from Steenkamp (1990) or Dawar and Parker (1994).

61Involvement with « terroir » products is correlated with the three factors sources of terroir, but only the link with « time and culture » is significant. Once again, this result indicates that the strongest support for involvement, i.e. the consumer x object (terroir products) relationship is the emotional and symbolic dimension of terroir.

62Finally, attitude toward « terroir » products is only correlated with « origin », at a significant level. We observe here the halo effect, already well characterized in the COO literature (Van Ittersum et al 2003): the attitude toward terroir products is influenced by the attitude toward the corresponding region. Conversely and once again, skills and process of production don’t seem to constitute a possible source for developing a positive attitude toward a « terroir » product.

Synthesis and discussion

63Results from our qualitative and quantitative studies are complementary. In the qualitative research, the region of origin seemed to be the most important dimension in the definition of a terroir product, the region being both associated with location and know-how. These results are consistent with previous studies including landscape, climate and natural resources but also producers’ skills into the COI (Verlegh et van Ittersum, 2001).

64However, in the quantitative study, the « region of origin » dimension is now split in two factors: « origin » as geographical origin, and « trade-skill ». Besides these two dimensions, the analysis identifies a third factor « time and culture ». The analysis shows that this factor seems to be the most influential. It is correlated with the highest number of variables, particularly those related to the image and evocations associated to terroir products. Some very positive associations are only correlated with this factor, such as terroir products as being more environment-friendly (less polluting and consuming less natural resources). Then, if the managerial literature underlines the (physical) geographic and skill or production process dimensions as constitutive of terroir, we can counterargument from this consumer oriented research that a third dimension exists, « time and culture », which has a heavy symbolic and emotional content, and appears, in this exploratory research, to be the most influential.

Conclusion and perspectives

65This research remains exploratory, and the small sample size of the quantitative survey considerably limits any empirical generalization.

66Our main purpose was to clarify the terroir product concept, from the consumer perspective, in the food product domain. We identified three dimensions underlying the categorization of a product in the terroir product cognitive category:

  • « trade-skill », including « know-how », « recipe » and « tradition »;

  •  « time and culture », including « history » and « ritual »;

  • « origin », including « territory », « region » and « land ».

67Our empirical results suggest that « time and culture » is the most influential factor in terms of representations associated with the cognitive category and global evaluation of a product (attitude and perceived quality) and the relationship (involvement) with the product. This result shows that terroir might not be limited to « origin » and « trade-skill », as generally underlined by production and managerial conceptualizations. Moreover, a careful analysis of our qualitative and quantitative results shows that « time and culture » has something to do with nostalgia. The consumption of terroir products is a way, at least for some consumers, to satisfy this need. Thus, for practitioners, if the perceived fit (perceived typicality) of their product and brand with the cognitive terroir category is satisfying, the positive attitude towards terroir will benefit their brand and product.

68Research on terroir products must be extended and the structure we identified must be validated on a larger sample. On this basis it will be possible to develop a measurement scale of « perceived terroir » and an accurate diagnosis of products and brands along this dimension.

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Appendix 1. Pictures of products used in the qualitative study

Appendix 2. Exploratory factor analysis (loadings after varimax rotation)

(TP: terroir products, only correlations greater than 0,30 are presented)

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1 One translation of the French word « terroir » could be « soil ». But, as this English word does not cover exactly the meaning of the original term, we made the choice in this paper to use the french term « terroir ».
2 Country Of Origin
3 Protected Denomination of Origin
4 Indication Géographique Protégée
5 Lagrange et al., 1997; Rastoin and Vissac-Charles, 1999; Alavoine-Mornas, 1997; Perrier-Cornet and Sylvander, 1999; Valceschini, 1998
6 Olson, 1977
7 Peterson and Jolibert, 1995; Verlegh and Steenkamp, 1999
8 Peterson et Jolibert, 1995
9 Verlegh and Steenkamp, 1999
10 Steenkamp, 1990; Dawar and Parker, 1994
11 Van Ittersum et al., 2003; Häubl and Elrod, 1999; Trognon et al., 1999
12 Pélardon des Cévennes is a local goat cheese from Cévennes, a small area in southern France, see appendix 1
13 Nedungadi and Hutchinson, 1985; Odou and Nicholson, 2000
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Electronic reference

Philippe Aurier, Fatiha Fort and Lucie Sirieix, « Exploring terroir product meanings for the consumer », Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 23 March 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Philippe Aurier

Professeur, Université Montpellier 2, CREGO

Fatiha Fort

Doctorante CREGO-Université Montpellier 2, Agro-Montpellier, UMR MOISA

By this author

Lucie Sirieix

Professeur Agro-Montpellier, UMR MOISA

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Licence Creative Commons
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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