Terroir for seafood?
Terroir is defined as the complete natural environment where a product is produced which gives the character to a product from its climate, soil and topography. It is strongly linked to a piece of land and is therefore well suited to describe the complex whole giving wine its character. The definition reflects poorly changing habitats like what we find in the sea. The question we ask is therefore if terroir is a suitable concept also for seafood.
Text: Dr Agric Einar Risvik, Nofima, New Nordic Food
Photo: Johan Holmquist
What about fish, can we speak of terroir for fish? Most sweet water fish is strongly domestic bound to its homestead, and even in small lakes there are several families that rarely take a trip to visit their neighbouring cousins. A cunning angler knows this and can tell the difference by colour, explained as a function of available feed in their local habitat. This varies over a small lake with shade and feed access, so terroir is strongly affecting the qualities of the fish. As for water quality, this is a form of weather and is maybe more stable over time compared to weather over land.
Crustaceans are largely residential in a small habitat so only water quality could be a consideration for terroir, but again the impact on eating quality means less than feed and it is fairly stable over time. In my opinion this should not be a disqualifying factor related to description of a specific terroir.
The big question is migrating fish like polar cod or Skrei, where the character is given by its environment. Skrei lives in the Barents Sea but migrates several thousand kilometres down to the Norwegian coast to spawn every winter. The fish is known for its fantastic muscle quality, and part of this is from the long swim, as we know exercise is good for muscles. Equally the feed is of great importance again and this is a journey against the gulfstream where nutritious water flows in all the time. But maybe the Barents Sea itself is the most influential as this is the most nutritious ocean in the world, and where the fish spends most of its time. The vertical mixing brings up rich and nutritious water from the deep ocean floor when the warm water of the gulfstream is cooled by the ice and sinks down. So what is then the terroir, the Barents Sea or the Lofoten spawning area? Does an ocean have enough of a character to qualify as a terroir? I believe the Barents Sea does qualify, and especially when this is combined with the strenuous migration to Lofoten and the fact that cod assemble energy for spawning on the way. In total this is a unique combination which provides a unique quality of fish. Skrei caught in Lofoten has the character of both the Barents Sea and Lofoten. The liver of polar cod is a delicacy of the same magnitude as goose liver, and should be used as such. It is distinctly different to cod liver in general and from anywhere else in the world, this is in itself a description of a terroir.
For pelagic fish it is maybe most challenging to define a terroir. Herring and Mackerel migrates the waters of the deep seas in something that can be understood as random patterns. Occasionally they disrupt habits and show up in new places, like these last years when Mackerel go north as far as Spitsbergen. This is several thousand miles north of where they have been earlier. There is still little doubt that herring or mackerel have characteristics from their habitat and their habits. These are more a function of season, and feed rather than topography and geographical boundaries. They follow migrating feed sources such as plankton and get their qualities from these. Again the most important factors for terroir is the fact that they follow the feed sources, and that they are harvested at specific times in their spawning cycles. Specific seasonal quality from distinct feed sources is an alternative definition of terroir when it comes to seafood. This would work for all purposes.