Artisanal Defined

October 6, 2006

The word “artisanal” is used to describe more and more foods these days. Appearing everywhere from fast food billboards touting new sandwiches to the Chronicle’s recent article about Bay Area chocolatiers, “artisanal” is an unmistakable trend. But what exactly is artisanal food?

For most people, “artisanal” conjures images of crusty bread and stinky cheese. As one Ferry Plaza Farmers Market shopper explains, “I buy artisanal products because I believe them to be handmade using traditional methods.” This perception is justified, considering Webster’s definition of an artisan as “a manually skilled worker” and the word’s roots in the Old World. But the word has no legal definition–like “gourmet” and “natural” it can be, and is, used liberally.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most things people owned and consumed were made by hand. Artisans were skilled craftspeople who created products that required extensive training and specialization to produce. In Medieval Europe, artisans formed guilds to set standards for their crafts and prevent competition. As production moved to factories, machines and factory workers replaced skilled craftspeople. The mechanization of food processing came later, but today, most foods sold in the United States are processed in factories.

As consumers become more educated about what they eat and more concerned about its origin, artisanal food is gaining popularity. This renewed interest goes hand in hand with the Slow Food movement, which is dedicated to supporting and celebrating food traditions. The Slow Food Foundation’s Presidia project seeks to protect foods all over the world that are at risk of extinction. Artisan food products are often closely linked with the specific raw ingredients from which they are created, and one way Slow Food helps preserve endangered crops and animal breeds is by promoting the artisan foods and traditions that utilize them.

Fruits like quince and medlar are scarcely useful without the knowledge of artisans like June Taylor of June Taylor Company. To June, “a food artisan is someone who is completely and wholly integrated into the creation of their product.” It follows, she says, that artisanal products can only be made on a small scale. And produce on a small scale she does–June is intimately involved in every part of production, from sourcing raw fruit from farmers and backyard growers to carefully and artfully crafting her delicious preserves.

Traditionally, the path to becoming an artisan included the stages of apprentice and journeyman. To be admitted to a guild, a journeyman had to present a “masterpiece”—a work that proved that he had mastered his craft and was worthy of admittance. Though Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy did not have to prove her skill to a cheesemakers’ guild, when asked what her masterpiece was, she was quick to name a cheese called Minuet. Made with both goat’s and cow’s milk, Soyoung says that Minuet reflects both her originality as a cheesemaker and the specific region in which she practices her craft. Artisanal cheese, she says, is made by hand with a respect for traditional foodways and with regard for the local environment and agriculture.

Minh Tsai of Hodo Soy Company defines artisan food as “food made fresh daily, by hand, in small batches that requires skills from a maker/master with a combination of science and art derived from experience.” Hodo Soy products are all handmade and hand-packaged. “To make and get fresh soy products to grocery stores or restaurants is almost an impossibility because of the commoditization of the soy industry. That’s why most tofu producers package their fresh block so it will last a long time.” He adds that “once you try [fresh tofu], it is very unlikely that you would try the packaged stuff again.”

Some shoppers turn to artisan foods because they often taste better and are made with higher quality ingredients. Others want to support local businesses and preserve lost culinary arts. Whatever the reason, the farmers’ market is a great place to find local food artisans. With many products on the market today claiming to be artisanal and no official standard for use of the word, it is up to shoppers to ask questions about the process, ingredients, and philosophy behind a product. At the farmers’ market, where producers sell directly to their customers, it’s easy to find answers. For a list of artisans and purveyors who sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, click here >