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What is your definition of “Artisanal”?

March 18, 2010

The more that a term is utilized and becomes ingrained in our common vernacular, the further it strays from its original intent.  Think about our use of the words “amazing” or “incredible” or even something as simple as “great”.  Even though these words are intended to signify something that is certainly better than average, they are over used to the point where they no longer hold any meaning.  I think there are many layers between something that is average and/or good, as opposed to “amazing”, “incredible”, or “great”.  I understand that these are common words that don’t have an impact one way or another on an outsider’s opinion.  “Oh that’s great?  Then it must be good” or something to that effect.  With that being said, there is a particular word that is utilized quite often when discussing cheese or other products that are esteemed to be of a higher quality.  What does the word “Artisanal” mean to you?

If I were to give my personal definition off the top of my head, “Artisanal” indicates something that is hand-crafted in small batches with a great amount of care that is not industrialized in any way, shape, or form.  The making or crafting of a particular good or service is viewed as high art, and it should be carefully treated as such.  That definition may get caught up with some sort of pastoral ideology, but that is how I view it.  So how would my definition, or your definition for that matter, apply to say…the bread that you buy in your local grocery store that labels itself as “Artisan”.  Is it handmade or is it made by a machine?  Just because it is not your “run of the mill” white bread, does that make it of higher quality? Is it “Artisanal” cheese if the cheese maker milks their own animals using machines and an industrialized process to form and cut the curd?  Actually, making cheese using milk from your own animals is defined as a  “Farmstead” cheese.  Should this process denote a higher quality or über-artisanal cheese, as opposed to a cheesemaker who sources milk from another farm?  How about if the cheesemaker uses locally pasteurized milk in order to make a consistent product as opposed to raw milk which can offer a unique taste reflective of the region?  I think the same argument can be made when discussing what makes a product “organic”.  Is organic, grass-fed beef flown in from Venezuela that better than beef from a local farm raised on grain or corn?

Commercialization is not necessarily the root of all evil when discussing cheese and the manner in which it is made.  There are several factory cheeses out there that follow the handmade and artisan practice according to their definition, yet industrialize a certain part of their process in order to accommodate demand and consistency of taste and texture.  Can we absolve them the right to put “Artisanal” on their packaging and dismiss their quality simply because they do not live up to our personal expectations?

I don’t know that this is a discussion that can be summed up in a few words, but I thought it important to bring up.  My definition and interpretation of this word is different from the cheesemonger selling me the cheese, which may be different again from the person who ages it and ultimately makes it.  The point I am trying to make is that using this term when describing a passion or process is an inherently personal choice.  It is not up to you or I  to judge and dismiss Kraft or Sargento if they decide to put “Artisanal shredded cheese” on their plastic bags as a marketing tactic.  What we can do is recognize how inundated our society has become with the use of the word “Artisan” and turn more towards the local and/or quality cheese and food sources that we personally identify with.

Ok…off the soapbox…

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. aed939 permalink
    March 18, 2010 10:26 pm

    Artisnal requires a specialized, learned skill or knowledge. I believe artisnal foods have value if the hand crafting results in a real difference in the food quality. For example, the artisnal mixing of a delicate food product that cannot be replicated in a machine without resorting to adding a stabilizing ingredient. That is a real food quality differentiator.

    • March 19, 2010 2:51 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I would absolutely agree with your statement, which is why I find it an interesting matter to ponder. I too prefer the smaller, hand made foods because I feel as if more thought and care went into them. It feels more personalized. As soon as you begin to mass produce on a large scale, too many variables have to be compensated for in order to continually produce a quality product. At that point, the original process and method falls by the wayside, and the spirit of tradition is lost. Again, is that right or wrong? Not necessarily, but I know what I prefer…

  2. March 21, 2010 2:23 pm

    A thought-provoking question. (DO Kraft and Sargento use the word “artisanal” on any of their products? Heaven forfend!) I do think there is a difference between mass-produced industrial-processed cheeses and those made more by hand and in smaller batches. Folks are waking up to the better taste of artisanal stuff, so of course Big Biz is jumping on the bandwagon and distorting the truth just to make a buck, but I guess we can take it as a positive sign that people know good quality and are willing to pay for it. As for the corn-fed local beef versus flown-in-from Venezuelan grass-fed question, the answer is find local grass-fed beef! The grain-fed CAFO products are pretty much poison…

    Thanks for another stimulating blog!

    • March 24, 2010 12:24 am

      But then what happens to an “artisan” product that gets wildly popular? Does the producer resort to industrialized methods to give people a good product? Or do we see price inflation? What if mechanized processes are introduced to provide consistency? Is that a bad thing? Are people willing to pay for a high quaility product that may be inconsistent? I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot as well and appreciate your thoughtful post!

  3. March 24, 2010 8:33 am

    Thanks for the comment Karen. That is the question! How far do you think a producer can go before calling their use of Artisanal into question? First and foremost, I care about taste and quality. Would I continue to purchase an inferior cheese from a local artisan, if I could get a better quallity product in the same style from a commercialized farm? I don’t know. As much as I support local, I think I would choose quality. That being said, I think commercialized process in some cases can be a good thing. Look at milk pasteurization. If the cheesemaker chooses to pasteurize their milk because they choose consistency of flavor and texture, rather than deal with the unique (and sometimes inconsistent) results from raw milk, is that compromise detrimental to their identity as an artisan? It is definitely a topic that will continue to spur conversation as the local vs. industrial argument continues.

  4. March 3, 2011 12:25 am

    Loving this argument. Just had this discussion with a cheesemonger friend of mine in Sacramento. We defined it as someone who take great care in crafting a cheese in a non-industrial way. Machinery allowed, outside milk allowed, depending on a case to case basis.

  5. March 8, 2011 1:04 pm

    Thanks for the comment Garrett. Sounds like we are in agreement. It will be interesting to see how this continues to play out, given all of the changes afoot in this industry. I hope that some sort of integrity is preserved.

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