Don’t Mourn the Death of “Artisan”

It seems like Mass media has finally figured out that “artisan” is an unregulated, practically meaningless term. I guess Jack in the Box, Dominos, and Tostitos have a way of really taking the romance out of a word.

Time magazine, sensing that people are actually reading about food these days, has had two short pieces on “artisan” in the last 6 months: “Wanna Help Sell a Food Product? Toss in the Word ‘Artisan’” and
The “Artisan” Hoax: Has That Word Become Meaningless?

See also 2 minutes in to this video on the Daily Show

(Hmmm, the embed is not working for some reason. Here’s a link)

I consider myself an original hater of the word “artisan.” Though I will admit to using it occasionally – usually to appease a customer who is fixated on the term – it has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, even when I was a board member for the California Artisan Cheese Guild it annoyed me. One of the reviews of Cheesemonger that I was most proud of cited my “picking apart” of the term “artisan” as “delicious”. I won’t repeat what I’ve already written about both the flaws of using unregulated terms and the irony of hearkening back to pre-industrial times as the good old days, but – as with anything in our economic system – words like this will always be co-opted as soon as Big Food starts losing market share.

In the natural foods world, many small companies became hugely successful creating products in opposition to the processed foods that dominate U.S. supermarkets. Now, of course, many of those companies are owned by the huge corporations* that also make that processed food. Also, increasingly the “artisan” American cheese companies that helped bring us the cheese revolution of the last twenty years are being bought by larger European companies.**

Which doesn’t mean that things are hopeless for people wanting to make hand-crafted, high quality cheese. “Artisan” is just a word and an obfuscating one at best. I’ve always thought that in many ways the microbrew, craft beer model is more applicable to cheese*** than the wine business model, and Big Beer tried to do all sorts of fake micro-brews but the small beer business is solid.****. Once people taste handcrafted, well-made, well-aged cheese, they are hard to fool with imposters.

Really, in the end, the taste speaks for itself. We don’t need words like “artisan” when we have actual quality.

*2009 chart here:OrganicT30J09
**I think this is preferable to those companies closing up shop, for the record. But, can you say a product is local if its owned by the French? For that matter, are you buying local if you shop at a chain grocery store owned in another state? I say the answer to both these questions is “no”.
***It is a shame that for obvious reasons cheese cannot — like small brewers –adopt “craft” as a term to describe itself.
****Timely article alert! I saw this after I wrote this post.

17 responses to “Don’t Mourn the Death of “Artisan”

  1. I too have never been a fan of this word, and was not surprised when it started popping up in fast food ads and on frozen pizza boxes.

    In the cheese shop I managed, we had a chalk board defining this word, among others (such as “farmstead”, etc). But when I saw the word stretched beyond what I considered a fair use of it in the gourmet (and non-gourmet) food industry, I stopped using it as a selling point. Our customers just wanted *good* cheese, and loved it when I could tell them the story behind the farms and cheese makers who contributed to it.

    Buzz words like these take away from the complexities of where our food comes from…but then I don’t need to tell you that! Keep up the good work & the good writing!

  2. Can I ask a stupid question and ask why we can’t use the word craft to describe the making of cheese?

  3. I was reading this as the commercial for Quizno’s touting its artisan bread played in the background. ‘Nuff said.

  4. Artisanal cheese production has a precise definition by the AOC:
    An individual producer uses the milk of animals raised on his or her farm, or buys in milk to make cheese. (the producer is the owner of the dairy but all the milk may be bought elsewhere)
    The quantities produced are small to medium and the cheese is sold in rigional markets and fromageries in towns.
    It’s that simple.

    • Well, that’s a start, but I wouldn’t say it’s “simple” or “precise”. What is regional? What is small quantity? What is medium quantity?

      Some AOC rules define these things for certain cheeses, but since many AOC cheeses end up in San Francisco, it’s hard to argue that AOC cheeses are sold regionally (even if their production region is defined.) Either way, since there is no AOC equivilant in the USA, it doesn’t mean anything for the cheeses made here.

      • I too find the shifting meaning of terminology frustrating and confusing. But this has led me, like Avner, to settle on the AOC categories and conditions of production when talking about cheese:

        I talk about these terms with my customers all the time, hoping that I may be able to educate them. I don’t pay much attention to where the cheeses are sold; however, because with the increase in importing and these definitions are pretty much irrelevant unless I think that the cheese is really special to a certain region, then I will tell my customers.

        • I’m all about talking about these things with customers — I actually think that is pretty much the main point of this short entry. I just think, at this point, the word “artisanal” confuses more than it illuminates,especially for US-made cheese. If someone was regulating the four definitions of production (as for AOC cheeses) I would feel differently, but in its current state the line between “artisanal” and “industrial” is very blurry and the big advertising budgets of multi-national food corporations are trying to blur it even more as fast as they can.

          Where do you set that line? Type of mechanization? Number of employees? Volume of output? 1000 lbs of cheese a year? 10,000 lbs of cheese a year? 100,000 lbs of cheese a year? I’ve been trying to figure out a good guideline for that myself in order to separate out large production from small production cheese but even that has flaws, such as the case of boutique cheese made by very large producers.

          Without a respected body to define these things, we cheese sellers are on our own. Which is ok, I guess. We tell cheese stories all day anyway and are equipped to explain the differences between, say, Lazy Lady and Montchevre. But, what it does do is leave us vulnerable to cooptation of the terms we use so we need to be more specific and more precise on an individual farm/cheese level. At this point “artisan” is met with a sneer by about 1/4 of our customers and that number will only increase as the Ad agencies push their “artisan ciabatta bread” and “artisan” chain pizzas.

  5. I agree that the artisanal word has been coopted and requires more for it to mean anything to customers. Whenever, I use the word artisanal, I have to define it. This means a customer has to be patient and listen to me say, “made by an individual cheesemaker and their apprentice(s) using the milk of their own herd or buying milk from neighboring farms. The cheesemaker is the owner of the creamery but not all of the milk is their own.”

    I define the milk sourcing down to neighboring farms for it to be considered artisanal. And I try to find out who and how many farms they use so I can tell my customers. The four classifications seem to work overall though. Is the maker buying milk? If no, then they are a fermier (or farmstead) even if they maintain two herds and have 1,200 head of animals that they tend. Is it made by a single maker or small team of apprentices hand ladling the curd and touching each wheel? If so, then it is artisanal. Are they putting milk into a machine and letting them it do all the work and spit out 10, 20, and 40 lb. widgets? If so, it could be cooperative or industrial. (Not that their aren’t a whole lot of cooperative cheeses that look a little different than this.)

    Often times I have to balance this information with how much a customer really wants to know. Often times they do want to know but sometimes they just want to taste something, make their selection and move on.

    I completely agree with the co-opting of words. It has happened repeatedly in the industry. See “gourmet” and “specialty foods” in addition to “natural,” “organic,” “and artisan.” I have an identity complex of what to call my future artisan cheese and specialty food shop (and unfortunatley I think “good foods” may be a little to ambiguous). I would further that overall, if it is a big business producing it, they are automatically disqualified from using the term. This is what customers are frustrated by. We are little guys, singing the praises of the little guys. These little guys are working hard themselves or sourcing from other little guys who are working hard. Your right, these are not big companies who exploit people who work hard so they can make money by using a word. And sadly, there is no AOC in the US — you, me and our fellow mongers are the AOC, my friend.

  6. Artisanal cheeses by their very nature are made in small amounts. They are sold at the farm, at farmers’ fair, or in specialized shops in the cities. You will not find them in supermarkets and certainly they are not exported.
    AOC cheeses you find in the U.S. are mostly industrial and some may be Cooperative. Does not mean they are not “real” but they are made in large quantities.
    The AOC definition are
    Industriel – The milk is bought from a number of producers, sometimes from distant regions. Production is industrial. These cheeses can be find in supermarkets and exported abroad.
    Cooperative – Made in single dairy with milk provided by members of the cooperative. These cheeses can be find in supermarkets but rarely are exported abroad.

  7. I think there might be room for both kinds of terms in the American food industry – those like “organic” or “aoc” which have a legal definition, and those like “artisan” or “natural” which are marketing terms. As much as those marketing terms can be co-opted by big industries, so do those terms allow consumers to steer big industries in directions we are interested in. When dunkin donuts starts calling their bagels artisan, it means that they are acknowledging increased consumer interest in smaller scale, more hands on productiion. When Sprite (or 7up can’t remember which one) says their soda is “natural” it means they realize people increasingly prefer to buy products that are less chemical or engineered. And I think these marketing shifts go hand in hand with production shifts. For example Burger King announced that it will move toward “cage-free” eggs, another term which doesn’t necessarily have a lot of meaning but does indicate that they will be improving conditions for chickens. At least somewhat.
    I also think that consumers are savvy enough to recognize which terms are marketing, especially if food professionals point them out. Like in this post.

  8. How much does it have to hurt for it to be artisan?

    • I want to see blood, Mateo! (But not in the vats, please.) 😉

      Seriously though, that’s a totally valid question. How one defines “artisan”, “small-production” or “family farm” can mean asking people like you to 1. never get a vacation 2. live a life of hand-to-mouth existence and 3. work yourself into an early grave so that us foodie urbanites can have our “traditional” food. How dare you use a milking machine! I demand you not be able to hold a pen by the time you are 40!

      One of my goals has always been to try and disabuse urban people of their bucolic rural myths. That is one of the reasons why “artisan” sticks in my craw sometimes.

  9. Pingback: What “Artisan” Really Means | The Cheese Traveler

  10. Pingback: The Word Artisan: How to Spot the Real Thing | Edible Antics

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