Delve podcast: Crafting Local Terroir & Putting Quebec Cheese on the Map with Robert David

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Delve podcast, October 2021:  Crafting Local Terroir & Putting Quebec Cheese on the Map with Robert David
Robyn Fadden – host: For most people who love good wine and cheese, the word terroir conjures unique European flavors and landscapes, flora and fauna, champagne, and Parmigiano Reggiano. As global trade, brand marketing and niche competition grew in that past half century, the definition of terroir has also grown. It’s grown to encompass a value that depends as much on climate and soil qualities as it does on social, cultural and even political factors. Like most products, whose identity rests on authenticity and prestige terroir products are a reflection of every aspect of their environment from farm to store to advertisement to table, with some government regulations and mythologizing thrown into the mix for good measure.
Robyn Fadden – host: Welcome to the Delve podcast. Delve is the award winning thought leadership publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. You can find Delve at and most podcasting apps. For this episode of the Delve podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Fadden. As legend tells it, Parmigiano Reggiano was first made in the year 1254 by Benedictine monks in Italy who simply wanted to extend the shelf life of milk. Soon they had too much cheese. So they sold it around the country and as its popularity grew, they sold it to the rest of Europe. Along with popularity came imitators, causing Italy and eventually the European Union to create regulations that gave the cheese Protected Designation of Origin. That’s the very brief story of Parmesan cheese. How champagne came to be an exclusive product has a similar yet even more elaborate origin story, propped up by branded storytelling about a French monk named Dom Perignon. Champagne’s story prompts the question: is French soil so unique that it alone could establish authenticity? Or is the authenticity of that soil socially constructed? It’s safe to say that despite champagne’s unique qualities, its authenticity is to an extent constructed by the social and cultural realm around it.
Robyn Fadden – host: So beyond brilliant inventors and strong local communities of producers, creating an infamous authentic sought-after product today requires something even bigger: a sense of belonging. Every product may have its own identity, but it still falls into a category of similar products. Every one of those categories falls into an even bigger umbrella category of related yet often distinct products linked more by cultural traits than physical ones. Today, terroir has become one big umbrella and it’s having an impact on consumers and producers alike.
Robyn Fadden – host: Desautels Professor Robert David’s recent research explores how meaning and identity is created around product categorizations, specifically around terroir and Quebec cheese made by local entrepreneurs. In Quebec, traditional dishes such as tourtière are well known, but a local terroir is still emerging hand in hand with a renewed sense of local authenticity and identity. Analyzing cheese and similar products and categories. Robert David and his co author Professor Johnny Boghossian, found that larger umbrella categories, which are typically created by government regulators, and arm’s length organizations with specific goals in mind, are so influential that they can reshape the landscape of categories within them, like cheese and wine, and even the identity of specific products. I talked with Robert David about the implications of his research on producers and markets, including how macro actors like state regulators and market intermediaries, like chefs organizations, place products under broader identity categories. We also talked about how social and cultural factors including national identities, like Quebecois, play a part in the emerging Quebec terroir story. It’s great to have you on the Delve podcast, Professor David, I’d like to start by asking how did terroir products that are considered artisanal but not necessarily traditional become linked symbolically with not only Quebec land, but its culture and even the Quebecois collective identity?
Robert David: It’s one of the things that intrigued us about this research context. As a direct answer to your question, it would be not very long ago, which we found interesting. So, I think had you sort of 30 years ago, which for me is not that long ago, had you stopped someone on the street and used the term terroir, you probably would have got mostly blank stares, unless the person happened to be acquainted with the world of wine and would have immediately thought of French or European wines. Had you even said you know that terroir as applied to Quebec wine would have gotten you probably some chuckles. The term was essentially not used prior to the late 1990s in Quebec. The paper is about how does terroir become symbolically linked with the land, culture and traditions of Quebec to the point of becoming part of the Quebecois collective identity. Essentially what the research, a large part of the research, is about and we use artisan cheese as the sort of modal or a poster child, if you will, for that kind of development or movement of social construction of a Quebec terroir.
Robyn Fadden – host: When did some typical foods and other products merge into this new category of Quebec terroir, if they emerged at all?
Robert David: In time purposes, we’re really talking what is that 20 to 30 years max, that this happened. Now that doesn’t mean that Quebec did not at that time have what we would call traditional or authentic dishes, right. So we know that classic examples of poutine or tourtière, and other traditional, what we would call traditional dishes have existed for many, many decades. But it’s important to distinguish those from what we would call terroir. So, take tourtière, would certainly be an authentic, what people would call an authentic Quebecois dish. No one would argue with that. That is not necessarily a terroir product. And the same for poutine. I mean, we would certainly call those authentic traditions, traditional dishes, but they may or may not be considered terroir products. At the same time, we can imagine things that we might call terroir products that are not traditional, right? So the notion of authentic slash traditional, and the notion of terroir are actually two different things.
Robyn Fadden – host: It’s fascinating to think about the Quebec identity and where authenticity fits in in terms of what products have been created in the last 30 years and how they become part of this authentic Quebecois terroir. I mean, in Montreal alone, today, you can find Quebec cheese at farmers markets, dedicated cheese shops, and many grocery stores even – there’s even a gourmet food truck dedicated to making dishes with only Quebec cheese. I can see why Quebec cheese became the focus of your research.
Robert David: We have a few quips in the paper of actor groups, macro actor groups sort of needing to communicate to Quebecers, what their traditional dishes were – if somebody is truly a long standing tradition, there would be no need to, you know, put a kiosk in a supermarket and educate people on what those traditional dishes are, because they would be deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of society. So, we tried to give a couple of little winks in the paper to say, well, hold on a minute here. This is entirely socially constructed, and is not, in fact, you know, a traditional dish, but could very well be fitting the definition of a terroir product.
Robyn Fadden – host: It’s a nod that asks how much is really authentic or traditional these days, that bridges us into the next question. Whether in the world of artisanal food, or in the art world and retail, anywhere really, the categorization of products can have a significant effect on how they’re received by consumers, especially in terms of sales and branding. Are local artisanal and terroir products created more socially and culturally, as you were mentioning, then intentionally or directly related to a category like a brand might do?
Robert David: So when a producer creates an individual product as an individual producer, that producer is typically not thinking at the category level, that producer is producing something – and then we should make the distinction is it is it a novel product or is it an existing product, right? So the answer to the question will ultimately turn on the notion of identity and identity claims. But when a producer decides to start a business, or as an individual to create a product, whether it’s a food product or any other product, that individual is essentially, aside from the technology of the product, is essentially making an identity claim. And when it’s an existing product, that’s not very interesting, right? Because the technology already exists and the identity already exists. And if I say well, I’m, you know, going to start a new business where I’m going to be making him cream. You understand what that means, and everybody, you know, the banker understands what that means. But if I, as a producer, then want to say, well, I’m going to be a wine producer, a Quebec wine producer – that started in the early 1980s, about half a dozen people who made that statement in 1982 and 1983 said, we’re going to be Quebec wine producers, that elicited laughter and derision, quite frankly, where literally government, local government officials said, you’re crazy. So there is no identity there at that time of Quebec wine producers, that person is trying to claim an identity which doesn’t exist. And that’s when it starts to become interesting.
Robert David: So those first few producers, and then we start to think rather than just individually but collectively, are actually constructing a new identity. And we separate that from the actual technology. So to become a wine producer, you have to learn how to, we’re talking about wine and not cheese, but the same sort of applies to cheese. The technology is the technology, right? So to make wine, you need to plant vines, you need certain winemaking equipment. But then if you talk about cheese, I mean, people know how to make cheese, right, you use a milk and there’s vats, and the milk has to be processed. So that’s a little bit, at least for us, a little bit less interesting, than the notion of the identity side of it, which is we are going to be a Quebec artisanal cheese producer, or we are going to be a Quebec artisanal wine producer. And so it’s really at the level of the identity that doesn’t exist yet at that time, and that these producers need to build. So how do they create a product? Well, if you want to just create the cheese, you get the milk, you run it through the production process, and you produce the cheese, this is known. But if you want to produce a product category, rather than just the product, then you have to do a lot of identity work. And that’s largely what the paper was about, what is the identity work involved with creating a recognized category of products? So now people will go into a store and say, Do you have any Quebec artisanal cheese, and you have a category then of products, and you may not necessarily have one particular product in mind, but you have the category in mind.
Robyn Fadden – host: So how do these varying product categories and their distinctions fit under broader umbrella categories. Umbrella categories like Quebec terroir might even be more complicated in how they’re determined, how their identity is formed, and the many products that fall under them.
Robert David: The category terroir encompasses literally hundreds of products under the umbrella. So, they would be considered terroir products, but they can be very, very different. So physical products and clothing, arts and crafts can be considered terroir products at some level. But even if we talk just in terms of food, there can be very many. The umbrella categories confer meaning to the product categories. And what’s also interesting is the product categories can pre-exist. So Quebec artisan cheese existed before the notion of terroir, in Quebec, the notion of a Quebec terroir. So, terroir products, the dominant identity of those products were artisanal products. And artisanal products are not the same as terroir products. One can be making artisanal products with entirely imported materials or ingredients. That would not be a terroir product. So once again, there’s terminology here that is conceptually useful or useful to keep conceptually and practically separate. The notion of an umbrella can come after the product itself. And the paper is very much about how products are brought in under the umbrella.
Robyn Fadden – host: What did you find out about how Quebec cheese makers viewed their products and themselves, especially before Quebec terroir was popularized?
Robert David: The cheese makers did not see their cheeses as terroir products, they made no claims about these products being traditional, or being nationalist or being reflective of Quebec identity. In fact, they saw their products as a form of self-expression, they were expressing themselves as artisans or artists, if you will, through their products. So it was very much a question of self-actualization. So, you know, I want to go back to the land and, very much embedded in the back to the land movement, I want to go back to the land, I want to express my passion through working with my hands and producing these products. And there was no sort of discourse, no sort of patriotic or nationalist discourse.
Robyn Fadden – host: When their products were labeled Quebec terroir by macro actors as reflections of the land, or the culture or the traditions and even the collective identity of Quebec, how did producers react?
Robert David: Producers sort of shrugged their shoulders. Some of them saw the economic implications of that and said, Well, yes, sure, if you want to look at it that way, and sort of played into that others were more ambivalent and were, well, that’s not really you know, what we’re interested in, but none of them strenuously objected. So these external actors are the ones that actually brought the cheeses in under the newly constructed terroir umbrella. Now, it’s useful to think about you know, certain other umbrellas: organic food is an umbrella. I also have another project on the on local food. So what is what is local food? That’s an umbrella that can have a great many heterogeneous kinds of products under it. We give in the paper the example of clean tech or green tech, what falls under there. I had a previous research project on alternative energy – what is alternative, what goes under the umbrella, what does not go under the umbrella. And one of our points is that these umbrella categories are vague or have an inherent ambiguity to them, which allows for different interpretations of what the umbrella category really is and gets very, very interesting. So, an industrially made Quebec cheese made from local Quebec milk, is that a terroir product? The postscript to our paper is that a lot of industrial producers thought that this was just a great idea. So the Saputos of the world have, just as happened with craft beer 20 years ago, 30 years ago, you know, sure if that’s consumers want, we could make our product look like a small artisanal product, and label it with terroir-sounding names. But is it a terroir product is a question mark.
Robyn Fadden – host: if industrial producers can get in on the umbrella category of terroir, what does that say about who the external market forces and non-producer organizations are and what goals they might have in mind when creating an umbrella category?
Robert David: I think one reading of our paper is that a group of producers on their own could probably not create an umbrella category, that an umbrella category would really need the involvement of what we call macro actors, and or intermediate actors. So the intermediaries in our paper are the retailers, the wholesalers, food critics, journalists, these are people who sort of mediate between the consumer and the producer. So they were key to our story. But perhaps even more important to the umbrella category are what we call the macro actors, which in our case were government organizations, some of the ministries, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Industry development, and so on, various ministries over time, which we just sort of shorthand as the Quebec government. And NGOs, in this case, an organization called the SRQ, that were sort of very macro level actors that were charged with a very, they’re a macro level activist group that was charged with promoting rural development, sort of a collection of union and rural and semi-urban chambers of commerce, and so on, agricultural groups.
Robert David: The other actor was the chefs association. So the chefs tried and on their own were not successful. And then the government jumped in and tried and were not successful. And then once the SRQ jumped in, the point here is less a general one of who would be successful and who would not be successful, but the main point is that macro actor involvement was very necessary for the construction of the umbrella category. The flip side is the macro actors on their own cannot, because they don’t produce, they don’t produce anything. So the macro actors on their own, could not really fill the category. They can construct this notion of a terroir category, but they cannot fill it with the products. And the producers, on the other hand, could produce products, but it’s very hard for them to really get the traction to create something that was more at the category level. So the macro actors, the producers, and then the intermediaries who are sort of linking the two create the full story of our paper.
Robyn Fadden – host: So we can see how the terroir category developed over time as these macro forces joined forces with each other and with intermediaries that were closer to the producers who could help link macro forces with the producers. And the producers, like these cheesemakers, as you’ve pointed out, have their own priorities, goals and communities, they’re proud of their products, and they talk to each other about them, but it’s rare that they would talk to umbrella actors or strategize about umbrella categories.
Robert David: Until like a Metro [grocery store] decides to create a section of organic food, it’s very hard for those individual producers to get to market right, so they can produce the products, they can’t get to market. And the flip side, of course, is that, you know, it’s chicken in the egg because the Metro supermarket or whatnot, you know, won’t create the aisles or the shelf space, until there’s interesting products and insufficient supply to fill those aisles. I think we use in the paper, this notion of a convergence of interests, where there’s a convergence across levels. In order for a quote unquote successful umbrella category to become, we use the term a category and use, one that we will encounter on a daily basis and that will have meaning and then we’ll be willing to pay for or pay more for or so on.
Robyn Fadden – host: Yeah, and people can see this successful umbrella category in action in the grocery store, they can see it in how many more craft beers or artisanal cheeses and terroir products are being produced now versus 30 or 20, or 10 years ago, it’s exploded partly due to that umbrella categorization encompassing a variety of products that have come to symbolize this now familiar category.
Robert David: Agreed. And then, you know, a question that we don’t address in the paper directly is, subsequent entrants, the next wave of entrants – so now that the category is created, it’s been filled to some extent, well, what is the next wave of entrants like? Are they as closely adherent to the values of the original producers or the category. You get these questions with organic food – are the organic jelly beans made in and imported halfway across the world? You know, they may fit the the definition of organic, they’re certified. But it’s unclear whether they fit really the spirit of the original umbrella category. And we can ask the same thing about the cheese made by Saputo. Right? Is that a terroir product, does it fit with… So this subsequent wave of entrants.
Robyn Fadden – host: What are the main drivers of the market identity of Quebec terroir products today? That’s changed hugely in the last 30 years, and could authentic terroir fall out of favor as the umbrella category shifts identity, as it includes maybe less authentic products?
Robert David: That’s a great question. And you’re right, it ties into the previous one. So take organic – if the notion of organic somehow becomes diluted, will consumers still want and demand organic products? Come back to the notion of identity, right? So if the identity becomes less clear, or less strong, then the category could wither or become diluted. And in economic terms, that might mean consumers might be willing to pay less. I think we’re still at a time where that term has a lot of resonance. So if we say Oh, it’s a terroir food and you put this label on something, I think it would have a lot of traction, but will that become diluted? Craft beer, organic food, terroir food. I’m studying this notion of local so now, walk into any grocery store, walk in anywhere, and it’s like, oh, local – food, local food, locally produced, buy local, especially with COVID, local is a big deal now. If something’s local, but it’s not particularly environmentally sustainable and gets labeled local food does that damage, the branding people would say image, but you know, we could talk about identity of the category if the category is not well bounded. So organic is protected. The Government of Canada regulates the labeling of the term organic, so I can’t put the label organic on a product unless it follows a certain regulation and has to be certified as such. But that’s not true for terroir. The term terroir is not regulated. The term local is not regulated. So I can and put that term on anything and the likelihood of being sued for claiming something which doesn’t really have a definition is extremely low.
Robyn Fadden – host: And who’s to say what products can or cannot enter an unregulated umbrella category? Is there anything producers can do to protect that category? Is there anything that governments can do other than regulate?
Robert David: So Quebec is unique in North America and I believe this is correct to say they’re unique in North America and that they have a quasi-governmental body or a body which is empowered by the government. And it’s the acronym is CARTV, (TV is termes valorisants), so it regulates the use of certain terms. For example, Quebec wine recently got this designation. So you cannot just sort of say what you want about a comeback wine, it has what’s called an IGP. It’s similar to the protections the appellation controller system that they have in Europe, and there are a handful of products in Quebec, not many, that have protection of their terms. So Charlevoix lamb, Neuville corn, Quebec icewine, Quebec wine, that have some protection, but the bigger the terms, you know, local food does not have, terroir food does not have any protections, and basically, anybody could put the term terroir on any label with very little, no real risk of any consequence. So that is sort of dangerous for the category. And that was happening with organic until the term became legislated at the federal level. Regulation moves extremely slowly. So unfortunately, for these producers, the answer is no, not much.
Robyn Fadden – host: What would you hope for the impact of this paper on the umbrella category actors and the categories you’ve investigated, as well as the impact of this conversation on people listening?
Robert David: It took us over 10 years to publish this paper. So I’m just very, very happy to have the opportunity to talk about it. And we do think that this work has broader cultural significance. We hope that the work has some policy implications.
Robyn Fadden – host: I think many people would be interested in the identity factor, that identity is formed in often unseen complex ways, not only in Quebec, but around the world. Product and umbrella categorization isn’t necessarily something we think about when we go shopping at the market, yet it has an impact on what we buy in the end.
Robert David: 100%. And as part of our local food project, we’ve interviewed some sellers at the Jean Talon market and interesting, a lot of that stuff is not local, right? I mean, if you walk through the Jean Talon market, and when you talk to the truly local producers, they’re quite bitter about it, because they’ll say… One of them commented to us that oh, there are just a lot of sellers here, in French that use the marchands, which means they’re just, vendors, I guess is the right word. So they’re not really producers. And so when one goes to the Jean Talon market one thinks one is having a very local experience, but one could spend hundreds of dollars and walk away with not a single local product.
Robyn Fadden – host: The relatively new category of Quebec terroir offers a way to examine the real world effects of collective and purposeful identity creation for products, including how authenticity is constructed socially, and by whom. This is especially vital when we also think about how identity changes over time with the various people who live and work in a place. That’s especially vital also, when you think about terroir being so place-based. Identity creation through umbrella categories has powerful effects on both markets and consumers as well as what makes someone decide to be an entrepreneur and in what sector. Circling back to the terroir giants of the world, one has to wonder if a local producers today aim to emulate the exclusive heights of European terroir. Maybe, maybe not. But that kind of terroir, authenticity and name recognition, even on the local level can be highly lucrative. As we’ve heard creating new terroir products depends on many market players and social factors. Aside from the producers’ own intentions. The future value of terroir, and the future value of many umbrella categories depends on whether all those factors can collectively form an identity that can be asked for by category name, if not by product brand. If Quebec’s emerging terroir continues to craft a sense of local authenticity and value, then who knows? Maybe Quebec could be home to the next champagne or the next Parmesan cheese.