George Bernard-Shaw had it right: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Passionate affairs are as intense and ephemeral as fireworks, while committed coupledom never quite feels the same in the twentieth year as it did in the first. But that first bite of a good meal remains as potent as ever.
The mass production and homogenisation of food has threatened the sincerity of this sweet, simple relationship between Man and food. What is sincere about a slice of tasteless white bread, a packaged microwave meal or a yellow square of milk product masquerading as cheddar? We are obsessed with food. We take close-up pictures for glossy books, watch programmes of people cooking dishes we cannot taste or smell. But it is a troubled passion.
We fetishize the idea of home cooking and devote whole television channels to nothing but cooking programmes even as McDonald’s restaurants pop up in every far-flung corner of the earth. We extol the virtues of healthy eating as foodstuffs get more processed and pick up ominous-sounding acronyms like MSG and HFCS.
There is little nowadays that escapes mechanization, industrialization and computerization, including our food. Yet in a society preoccupied with convenience and hurriedness, the wholesome smell of baking bread holds more sway over us than ever.
Artisanal food is a response to this autobahn of modern life. In such a culture where factory farming is the norm and fast-food is king, many are turning more strongly than ever back to their roots.
The concept behind artisanal eating goes beyond the idea of owning a few Jamie Oliver books and exclusively shopping for groceries at Woolworths. It’s much more than just another name for focusing on home-grown or fresh produce. It’s about crafting personal connections with food and fostering a deeper understanding of where something comes from. This is locally-produced, high-quality food, chemical and pesticide-free. Anything hand-reared and hand-made can be artisanal – cheese, wine, meats, chocolate, honey, coffee, bread, olive oil, ice-cream…the list goes on. Vegan or meat-eater, experimentalist or traditionalist; artisanal eating welcomes any kind of food-lover.
Food artisans treat the creation of the food we eat as a fine craft. Their artistry is organic – they are there through every stage of a foodstuff’s life-cycle, guiding its development. These are highly skilled men and women who apply their experience and breadth of knowledge to their craft. Some use science to complement traditional techniques.
An artisanal approach, grounded and earthy, may seem like an odd fit for a society that worships at the cult of the celebrity chef. But any chef worth their saffron knows that much of the cooking battle is won outside of the kitchen, in the farms, fisheries and dairies. Good cooking comes as much from the quality of the food as it does from the quality of the chef.
If chefs are designers and architects, then food artisans are painters, sculptors and wood-carvers that provide the raw materials for their final opus.
Artisanal eating addresses other concerns of modern life: the desire for sustainable living and ethical consumption. Artisanal food is by its very definition small-scale. There is no room for large factories in this world of a craftsperson with such personal devotion to their art.
Because ingredients are locally produced, transport costs are drastically decreased and employment opportunities are created within the surrounding communities. Concerns about the humane treatment of animals can be addressed in ways that are impossible with large-scale factory farming. The intuitive appeal of artisanal food is that it offers an easy way for anyone living in a city or town, no matter how deeply entrenched they are in consumer culture, to step out of their high-stress lifestyles for a time and enjoy the proverbial simpler things in life.
Tearing off a chunk of crusty Ciabatta bread and slathering it with real honey; sprinkling a bruschetta with good cheese, succulent baby tomatoes and fresh herbs; drinking a slow-roasted coffee with a tart made of juicy blueberries – these are pleasures that cannot be replicated with Big Macs and boxed meals. Indeed, the pleasures of passionate food engage all of our senses beyond taste; the smell of an opened vanilla bean, the touch of a ripe peach, the sight of melting chocolate, the sound of a roast crackling in the oven. Artisanal food taps into the sensual.
Artisan food speaks to something deep inside us. It is our connection to something far older and more authentic than traffic jams, deadlines and rushed lunches. It evokes the sincerity Bernard-Shaw spoke of because it is sincerely made.
This is food as it was meant to be eaten.