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  • Writer's pictureJessica Felton

terroir

Updated: Apr 4

The sun has finally relinquished its summer hold–the sky has darkened fully as the clock ticks past 11pm. It still amazes me how long the sky stays light during Paris summers. The streets branching off Montmartre’s bustling Place du Tetre are overflowing with tourists and locals alike searching for their after-dinner digestifs.



Montmartre is Paris’s artists’ district—a quaint mix of cobblestone, bawdy neon lights, and buskers at the top of a large hill in the northern part of the city. In earlier times it was a center for Bohemian culture and all the vices that came along with that—cabarets, bars, and absinthe shops. Though banned in France in the early 20th century, new legislation has once again made absinthe (a potent spirit made with wormwood and fennel) legal to sell. It is with this goal in mind that I hike through Montmartre, pausing at every café and bar I see to take a glance at their framed menus in the doorways: “Wine, gin, brandy, Campari, but no absinthe,” I mumble to myself, then sigh.


The neighborhood is a labyrinth of narrow alleys and steep winding stairways that are carved jaggedly into the hillside. I am lost. Parisian streets aren’t laid out in a grid, but in harsh angles and slopes. I wander in a daze, but I am content. The air is cool and breezy. Accordion music dances in the wind somewhere in the distance.


I finally make it far enough away from the busy central square, where the small alleyways are quiet and still. I turn a corner and see a lively bar on an otherwise silent and unassuming street. Parisians spill from the doorway into the streets while their laughter and conversation explodes like a bomb on the quiet block. There is no sign above the bar, no notice of what it is besides the gaggle of young locals holding highball glasses and beer bottles. A mildly familiar Motown song blasts from speakers inside. If it weren’t on an ancient cobblestone street, it might just be any dive in any small college town.


I decide to abandon my search for an absinthe bar and duck inside for a quick drink. The young barmaid flits behind the counter in tune with the music, a flouncy lace dress fluttering around her knees as she mixes a drink in a cocktail shaker.


A chalkboard above the liquor shelves reads “Sauvés par le gong” in dusty pink chalk. I know a little French, enough to get around okay, but it’s not until I read the list below that I really get it: Jessie, Zach, Slater, Mr. Belding, Kelly, Screech, and Lisa. Each name is followed by a list of ingredients. They’re cocktails–drinks named after the characters from Saved By The Bell. Throughout Paris one will spot these little amalgamations of French and American culture, whether it’s a MacDo with its glowing golden arches across from the Louvre, Obama tee shirts hanging in the windows of souvenir shops, or a Jay-Z song blasting from someone’s iPod on the metro. The Saved By The Bell drinks are just another example of a country intent on preserving its culture but falling short.


Despite all this, I find myself so inexplicably tickled and amused, and I order the Jessie cocktail in fractured French: “Je voudrais un Jessie, s’il vous plaît.” I feel like Clark Griswold à la European Vacation, but the bartender nods with a smile and dances about as she prepares my drink. Around me I hear snippets of conversations, French words that I am just able to understand.


The barmaid slides a highball glass across the chipped wooden counter. “Voila!” she calls over the rumbling speakers. Sipping through a tiny straw, I taste cherries and citrus juice, the bubbles of seltzer and the sting of vodka—a spiked cherry-limeade. The drink is satisfying and refreshing, but nothing terribly life-changing, not like that first magical taste of bubbly Champagne or buttery foie gras. The bar, though–the dim, unnamed dive on a small and quiet street–will always be in my snapshots of Paris, once of those unique little experiences that embodies France. You see, France is all about simple pleasures and passions.


While studying abroad, I learned about the concept of terroir, one of those words that has no exact English translation. Food and France are so tightly woven together, and terroir is really the heart of it all. The idea is that the locale where a particular food is raised, grown, and created imparts special, unique qualities to the product. It’s the reason why Champagne is made only in the Champagne region, why Bresse chickens come only from Bresse, why Camembert cheese is only made in Camembert. It’s often described as a “sense of place”. I loved that and I found myself connecting with food in a way I never had before. I tasted things I’d never tasted before—truffles, Roquefort cheese, foie gras, mussels cooked in white wine, blood sausage, steak tartare, French olive oil—and noticed flavors I never knew existed. I tasted the earth in the truffles, the sea in the mussels, the Provencal sunshine in the olive oil. This was terroir.


It was a beautiful concept to me, this “sense of place”, and after returning home from France, I started to think about it in every aspect of my life. Doesn’t the same thing happen to a person? Don’t the places a person matures and grows characterize their being in some way?


I grew up in the South, in Northwest Arkansas, and always felt like my Southern upbringing was a part of who I was. There were lazy summer days napping on the porch swing, picking sun-ripened peaches from the tree in the backyard for peach cobbler, fishing for rainbow trout, the smell of mimosa trees in bloom, sticky fingers from razing honeysuckle bushes, lacy white gloves and flowery hats on Easter Sundays, catching jarfuls of fireflies during humid Summer nights, crawfish boils and skillet cornbread and hushpuppies and pickled okra.


I learned about terroir and I learned why I love food, a leisurely existence, the feel of sun on skin, and the simple pleasures life has to offer. After spending time in France, I discovered it was part of my terroir as well. It’s a country of passion and celebration, of joie de vivre. It’s a country that will change your life if you let it.



While the South imparted a love of tangible things, France imparted a love of the abstract: a love of beauty, joy, amour, pleasure. France taught me that even if things don’t turn out as you hoped—even if you don’t find that special drink you’ve been looking for—then that’s okay because you will find something that makes you feel just as happy, just as warm and fuzzy. C’est la vie. Ernest Hemingway described the influence of Paris much better than I could ever hope to do myself: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

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