Has “Artisan” lost its meaning?

BY BRYAN LAVERY

We are living through a gastronomic renaissance and more than ever my work put me in front of the orthodoxy of local food procurement, business incubation, culinary innovators and food start-ups advancing regionalism in our food culture. Cooks and restaurateurs that authentically support farmers and food artisans and pay close attention to the provenance of their ingredients hold a great deal of sway with me. I do not want to read another menu with the disingenuous claim, “We source our food locally whenever possible.”

Photo by Phong Tran / LCG

To stay current with the culinary scene, I continuously talk and meet with chefs, farmers, food artisans and restaurateurs. When I tell people that among other things, I am a food writer, they imagine a superficial existence of dining in restaurants night after night. I make a habit of not dwelling on pedestrian dining experiences or poorly executed cuisine in print. The reality being, I am subjected to more than my fair share of mediocre food and disappointing food experiences, but my quest is to uncover and elevate the authentic and extraordinary.

No reader wants us writers to pile unrestrained acclaim on every restaurateur, chef, farmer or culinary artisan. It gets obnoxious and is insincere. At best, I am a curious eater, and I like to discover the best food and dining experiences, but I also consider recommendations from an extensive network of knowledgeable contacts. In my quest to eat wisely, I am sent on many a wild goose chase, a crucial caveat being that I can almost forgive unpleasant surroundings or neglectful service if the food is remarkable in the true sense of the word.

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 broader 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. 

Handcrafted, regional, small-batch, signifier of quality, local 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. Authentic artisanal goods can’t be mass-produced: they are limited in number and generally have specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature.

A few years ago, I discovered an award-winning, soft buttery cheese that I had lionized, turned out not to be a handcrafted or farmstead produced. Rather than being the essence of Quebec’s terroir, it was a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients. The “artisan” farmer featured on the packaging was nothing more than a figment of some marketing ploy.

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, the term has lost its meaning and integrity. You have to wonder if the term “artisan” has any credibility or if it has become another marketing ploy for the greenwashing of corporate food initiatives.

Greenwashing relates to a practice in which green public relations are 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 also 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 them 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 foodborne Listeria outbreaks and concerns continue to shake consumer confidence in corporate businesses and products produced by agribusinesses.

The preference to purchase and eat local products has helped revive farmers’ and farmgate sales as an alternative to grocery store retailers. Farmers’ markets are not only increasing exponentially but according to 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.”

Many farms selling local foods, crafts and flowers from a farmgate stand at the end of a laneway. The farmgate 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, corporate companies have misappropriated the term, diluted its meaning and made it almost hopelessly meaningless.