Artisan - how do you know?

"An artisan product has three definite hallmarks. It adheres to traditional processes, recipes and quality." Deccan Herald


What I found most interesting about that statement is that it is from an Indian newspaper. So the artisan craze has also hit the Indian subcontinent - where, in fact, you would have thought that the everyday food that everyone eats in fact is artisan because it adheres to those three hallmarks. But I really don't know. Maybe mass production and supermarkets have reigned supreme there too. After all further into the article the author says:


“A faceless corporation churning out products by the millions does not appeal to urban consumers anymore." Deccan Herald


So maybe our view India, of slightly chaotic streets lined with stalls selling delicious and unique food is completely wrong, though there seem to be plenty of photographs such as these online. And even a brief search on supermarkets in India seems to imply that they are not really the norm.

Why am I talking about artisan? Well I have almost finished Julia Child's memoir My Life in France, in which I came across this statement.


"Mechanisation was taking over the food business, even in France, and it seemed clear to me that many of the artisanal skills we were going to record - the making of glacéed fruits, the hand-cutting of meat, the decorative skills of traditional pâtissiers - would disappear within a generation or two." Julia Child


She was completely wrong of course. Today 'artisan' is a thing.


To my surprise the book was published in 2006 in the last months of her life and was compiled by Julia herself and her husband's great nephew. However the statement above refers to some TV documentaries she was making in 1970. I thought it was a statement that in different words was common to the cookery writers of the day, who deplored industrialisation and bemoaned the fact that, for example, there were only two or three kinds of apples we could buy. Take Jane Grigson for example:


"Recently there has been something of a vegetable boom. It started in the fifties with Elizabeth David who championed vegetables in their own right, not just as adjuncts to meat. ... Unfortunately the trade has not profited intelligently from these moves towards vegetables. The magnificent choice at New Covent Garden is poorly reflected in shops outside London."


On the industrialisation side of things the market was flooded with new mass produced things like frozen meals, and later chilled meals, the health food market blossomed - consumerism was king.


"The commercial revolution of the 1950s brought wealth not before seen in Australia and, with it, a surge in processed foods marketed as quick and convenient ways to feed the family. Sliced, diced and neatly packaged food is still embraced to this day, however, health trends in the 1980s laid the foundations for a more nutritionally aware population." Baking Business


With respect to France though I suspect they may have been a little unfair. True that on the one hand you have the four massive hypermarket chains and their really massive stores full of mass produced food, but even they have a section dedicated to local specialities, artisan made, and let's not forget the wines - even the massive companies such as Moët et Chandon have an artisan reputation to maintain. And at the other end of the spectrum you still have the markets which are chock full of the stalls of the local food producers, and also the small shops in towns as well as villages. Every village of more than a dozen or so houses has at least one boulangerie - possibly more. And these days to be able to advertise yourself as artisan you have to abide by the rules which means you make the bread on the premises. And a whole lot of other things too.

Here in Australia there don't seem to be any rules. You can call your product 'artisan' or 'craft' as you please, and as, the products labelled as such normally cost at least twice as much as one not labelled so, then why wouldn't you? Even the obviously mass produced product will often contain one of those key words shown below.

Today it's artisan this and craft that - all those words illustrated here. And there are more - organic, whole food, the aforesaid artisan, hand made, proudly, traditional, authentic ... We have farmer's markets and artisan bread and cheese makers, tourist foodie destinations, and even the supermarkets have artisan sections.


So define artisan. After all, as the odd post I have written here and there about a particular company shows, from little things big things grow. Take Patak's for example. I wrote about them back in 2019. It began with a migrant family - well mum really - making spice pastes at home and selling them to a small group of friends and neighbours and ended with selling to a massive British food (and other stuff too) conglomerate, which exports the products all over the world. Is this still an artisan product - fundamentally the same Ingredients I assume but with mass production techniques? Or is it just mass produced crap? If you mass produce something is it crap? Think of one of the favourite mass-produced products you buy that you at least think is good quality and answer that one. Tim Tams anyone? There was an interesting article on the National Food Institute Australia website which spoke about this, mostly with reference to beer, but it applies across the board.


"When a craft food product rapidly rises in popularity, a producer may have to ramp up production output. There’s also the challenges of distribution and an evolving work environment. Most small-batch craft producers aren’t equipped for expanding into ecommerce or making quick changes to Workplace based training. ...


There are currently no limitations in Australia when it comes to governing the definition of ‘craft beer’. Three of the biggest players in Australia’s ‘craft brewing’ industry, Malt Shovel, Matilda Bay and Little Creatures, are wholly or significantly owned by Foster’s or Lion Nathan." National Food Institute Australia

So does this make these products no longer craft beers? The picture above shows some of the shelves of a Melbourne shop (there are several) dedicated just to 'craft' beers. Can you still call something artisanal or craft if it is now owned by a multinational, even if the original makers don't still make it?


It takes more time to shop in dozens of different places to ensure that everything you buy is sort of home-made - artisan. Much easier to do it all in one place in the supermarket, and it has to be said that the supermarkets have responded to increasing concern about health and what goes into the food on our shelves. Governments have brought in an increasing number of rules and regulations about labelling, packaging is improving, more varieties of vegetables and fruit are appearing. Why?


"Celebrating the farm-to-plate ideology, however, is only a recent phenomenon, born out of consumer affluence and metropolitan living." Baking Business - Australia


Consumer affluence. Yes indeed. Unlike France, and the big markets like the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, farmer's markets are not cheap. Indeed they don't even put prices on their fruit and vegetables. A practice that I deplore. You have to ask how much they cost, and that means they could be saying different prices to different people. Do they expect you to buy just because it's local? And is it anyway? I know for a fact that the citrus fruit sold at our local farmer's market comes from Kingfisher Citrus who are based up Mildura way, and sold here in Eltham by some kind of agent. I do buy my Seville oranges from them though - nobody else sells them these days. They are not cheap. Good - even excellent - but not cheap. They probably supply supermarkets as well for all I know.


And neither are all those other artisan products cheap. I'm sure there is an argument for that fact - small scale equals higher prices for all sorts of reasons, but I suspect that some don't warrant the price. Take Maggie Beer's growing range as an example. Those products must now be produced on a very large scale - they are in both of the major supermarket chains and heaps of smaller places as well. So the small scale arguments for price are just not there. Better quality ingredients - well maybe - but still. I personally think snob value, for want of a better word, accounts for a large chunk of the price.


So when does artisan stop being artisan and become mass-produced? And just because it's hand-made from a secret recipe and the best ingredients, doesn't necessarily make it good does it? A certain amount must surely depend on the skill of the maker. There's a lot of pretty ordinary wine out there for example. Probably craft beers too - but then I don't drink those so I don't know. I suppose quality will out. If your product is horrible then surely nobody will buy? But when I see people buying croissants - that look slightly burnt to me - at our local artisan baker for around $7.00 a piece I have to wonder. We are all suckers for marketing after all - and I include myself in that.


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