Thursday, July 31, 2014

The word “Artisan” on a Label is no Longer the Imprimatur it Once Was


To stay current with the culinary scene, I constantly talk and meet with restaurateurs, chefs, farmers and food artisans. When I tell people that I write about food and other culinary matters, they imagine a frivolous existence of dining in fabulous restaurants night after night. You might notice that I don’t dwell on pedestrian dining experiences or bad cuisine. The reality is that I am subjected to more than my fair share of mediocre food and disappointing food experiences, and I rarely write about them.

However, no reader wants us writers to pile unrestrained acclaim on every restaurant, chef, farmer or culinary artisan. It gets obnoxious. At best, I am a curious diner and I like to discover new restaurants randomly but I also listen to suggestions from readers and a large network of contacts. In my quest to eat well, I get sent on many a wild goose chase, with my most crucial caveat being that I can forgive unpleasant surroundings or neglectful service if the food is good.

We are living through a gastronomic renaissance and more than ever my work puts me in front of the orthodoxy of local food sourcing, business incubators, culinary innovators and food artisans advancing the regionalism in our food culture. I can’t help but be enthralled by chefs and food producers that support farmers and food artisans and pay close attention to the provenance of their ingredients.

Fortunately, the movement to buying and eating local is showing no signs of waning. The local food movement and sustainable agriculture reform initiatives are grounded upon critical assessments of the existing food systems that dominate the marketplace and remain instrumental in driving the cycle of global famine. It seems to me, central to the local food movement is the desire to support small scale farmers and food artisans, whose products are consumed locally, allowing them to keep revenues within the community and reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture.

The prevailing agri-business conglomerates’ model is ridiculously expensive, toxic for both people and the larger environment, and I think most of us will agree that it is unsustainable. Global instability, dependence on other countries, food security, rural welfare and smart economics are among the most compelling arguments for us to promote and lobby for a sustainable local agricultural sector.

Local food movements attract their share of detractors, with the movement’s ideals and initiatives striking some as inaccessible or too cerebral. Critics maintain that eating has evolved from a question of survival to a declaration of unrealistic elitist principles and moral superiority.  No one wants to endure a twenty minute lecture about eating a tomato out of season, however enlightened it may seem. This type of grandstanding has more to do with an individual’s personality and politics rather than genuine principles.

Hand-crafted, regional, small-batch, signifier of quality, regional in origin, and the list of virtues that denote the word “artisan” goes on. But what does the term really mean? In my experience, an artisan is a craftsperson who makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods. True artisanal goods can’t be mass-produced: they are limited in quantity and generally have specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature.

Imagine my disbelief a few years ago when I discovered that a soft cheese with a rich buttery flavour that won a raft of awards, and which I had lionized, turned out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the very essence of Quebec’s terroir, but rather is a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” farmer featured on the packaging was nothing more than a figment of some advertising agency’s imagination.

The word “artisan” on a label is no longer the imprimatur it once was; it has become a buzzword and a warm and fuzzy marketing adjective. Now that fast food corporations and grocery chains have co-opted the idiom, it has lost its meaning and integrity. You have to wonder if the term “artisan” has any credibility or if it has become another meaningless marketing ploy for the greenwashing of corporate food initiatives.

Speaking of greenwashing, the term relates to a practice in which green public relations is employed to encourage the false perception that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly, or that environmental responsibility is a core business ethic.  Being green not only has a certain cachet, it is politically correct and respected by both eco-friendly and not green customers alike. If you look closely it appears that bogus feel good environmentalism and eco-friendly fakery are not only on the rise, but continue to drive self-serving agendas when you least expect it to.

Studies reveal that grocery store shoppers consider the quality of the produce as most important to them in their choice of supermarkets. The trend is also helped by consumers’ growing concerns about food safety as food recalls, allergy alerts, and food borne Listeria outbreaks and concerns continue to shake consumer confidence in corporate businesses and products grown by agribusinesses.

The preference to purchase and eat local products has helped revive farmers’ and farm gate sales as an alternative to grocery store retailers. Farmers’ markets are not only increasing exponentially, but according to the most recent available statistics Canadians spend more than $1.03 billion at them each year in annual sales, for a total economic impact of up to $3.09 billion. According to Farmers’ Markets of Ontario, “one way that farmers’ markets shape food systems is by fostering free enterprise and ethically-grounded economic behaviour.”

There are many farms selling local foods, crafts and flowers from a farm gate stand at the end of a laneway. The farm gate helps build relationships between farmers and consumers as well as encouraging respect and generating awareness of the sustainability and seasonality of products and rural business as a way of life.

In Ontario the growth of niche, largely rural-based culinary enterprises, whose innovations are concentrated on the production of specialty, high quality, artisan type products, continues to be on the rise. Superior qualities of artisan foods over their mass-produced equivalents are seen as the main reason for their growth.

The term artisan, from the Italian artigiano, dates back to the 16th century to reference a skilled craftsperson. In just over a decade, companies have misappropriated the term, diluted its meaning and made it almost hopelessly meaningless.

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