The trendiest of cultures, Japan is the first place actual dirt was served intentionally in a restaurant. Inspired by Satoyama—the socioeconomic land between mountains and a flat, populated area ideal for natural cultivation—chef Yoshihiro Narisawa celebrated the connection between our food and nature by establishing Satoyama cuisine. The significance of these rich, agricultural areas have been identified using different terms in different countries and languages, including dehesa in Spain and ahupua’a in Hawaii.
A LOOK BACK
Toddlers are the most immediate and convincing evidence that soil has been a part of our digestive tract as far back as our genes will take us. It’s a thing and there’s a name for it. Geophagy is the practice of eating earth. Reasons for this range from tribal practices to eating disorders, and certain palatable preferences such as cravings some pregnant women develop. And, of course, chefs pushing the envelope.
Narisawa’s eponymous restaurant first served ‘Soup of the Soil’ in 2001, a concoction of burdock root, spring water and … dirt. Since then, a handful of food hotspots have turned out dirty creations from ice cream with soil at Copenhagen’s Noma to the soil-infused butter chef Justin Cournoyer uses at his Toronto eatery Actinolite. Forest forages are a regular part of Cournoyer’s work and he’s picky about his dirt, avoiding silty topsoil and hunting for the earthy richness found in soil near maples and pines.
Because it’s in the wild, the literal foundation of decaying organic debris, there is a risk of botulism. Soil must be sanitized at a minimum temperature of 200 ° C and can be baked in an oven, or boiled in a pressure cooker. Among others, chef Toshio Tanabe takes a different approach to the wild side and composts his own organic in-house dirt to ensure it’s sanitary and safe to consume.
IN THEM THAR HILLS …
Because it’s in the wild, a literal foundation of rotting debris mixing with the mineral composition of the area, different soils have their own unique flavour. Vineyards, which flaunt unique characteristics and flavours determined by the area and earth the grapes grow in, are the familiar context for ‘terroir.’ The new trend of soil on the menu has vaulted this term into new territory.
I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT DIRT!
In June 1978, chef Michel Bras was struck by inspiration while ambling about the French countryside in full bloom. Gargouillou, the resulting dish incorporating leaves, flowers and pseudo-dirt, was the first foray into bringing the landscape to the plate and has inspired chefs around the world to experiment with this natural connection.
These days, ‘dirt’ is inventively showing up in restaurant kitchens using everything from coffee grounds, various crumbs, almonds, powdered tomato, dried potato, malt powder, roasted chicory root, roasted and ground beets, dehydrated black olives … the list goes on.