Terroir is a French term that expresses the specific set of characteristics a particular geographical area has (soil, climate, altitude, rainfall, sunlight, and so on) that optimize the production of a certain crop and give the resulting product a distinctive quality. In effect, this is a concept explaining the connection between a particular product and a particular location.
In a place like the Basque Country, where all things gastronomic are of special social and cultural significance, where people actually talk about food and drink in everyday conversation (along with the weather), and where people actually talk about and discuss the food that they are eating at a particular moment, terroir is a key–if often unacknowledged–presence.
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts on Basque gastronomic products and their terroir (and a brief disclaimer, given how sensitive/passionate folks are about their food: all of these posts reflect my personal knowledge of the topic and I make no claim that they’re in any way definitive… there could be, and probably are, many more places in the Basque Country associated with these wonderful products).
Let’s start with a look at cherries. The cherry (gerezia in Basque) is a fruit originating in Europe and western Asia. Cherries have a very short growing season and thrive in temperate climates although they are also labor-intensive to produce and a relatively difficult crop to cultivate as they are highly susceptible to damage as a result of too much rainfall, for example. All this makes them highly prized and relatively expensive. In the Basque Country, two areas stand out when it comes to cherry production: Itsasu (Itxassou in French) in Lapurdi and Etxauri (Echauri in Spanish), Corella, and Milagro in Navarre.
Itsasu is associated most famously with the beltxa or black cherry, a variety that is considered among the best in the France, but there are other varieties such as the Peloa, and Xapata, as well as the rarer Markichta and Garoua. They are handpicked in early June, when an annual cherry festival is also held in the village, and typically eaten fresh or in a jam or preserve (which can also be used to top the famous Gâteau Basque or as an accompaniment to any duck dish or sheep’s milk cheese). For more information on the Itsasu cherries, see these short introductions here and here. And check out the following video (in French with English subtitles) on cherry production in Itsasu:
Cherry-picking season in Navarre, meanwhile, begins around mid-May and ends in early July, just prior to the San Fermin festival in Iruñea-Pamplona. The Etxauri Valley, for example, is particularly suited to cherry cultivation because of its rocky undulating terrain, favoring good drainage of excess water. The microclimate there, likewise, adds a special shine to the resulting cherries, as the following video (in Spanish) explains.