by Les Saidel - April, 2010
The dictionary defines an artisan as someone who is skilled in an applied art, a craftsman. When you think of an artisan, it conjures up the image of a whiskered Geppetto slaving away at his bench carving wood, or the shoe maker of legend who breathed life into every slipper that he created.
Basically all artisans have one thing in common, they use their hands and various tools to produce a unique creation. Their numerous works may bear resemblance to one another, but none is identical in every way. Contrast this with the process of cloning, where every resulting product is a perfect duplicate of its predecessor and neighbour.
The Industrial Revolution signalled the demise of the artisan era and heralded in a new age where products could be made en-masse with amazing consistency by machine at low cost. This innovation definitely has its perks and modern civilization could probably not survive without it, however it comes at a price. That price is uniformity, lack of character, and very often lack of quality.
When you buy a plastic toy, made in China, it is doubtful if the person who was involved in its manufacture created that toy with any tender loving care or special attention to detail or quality. It is probably just the same as a million or so other plastic toys of similar ilk.
Contrast this with someone who buys their daughter a hand made doll that was assembled and created with the knowledge, care and attention passed from generation to generation. That doll will have a much higher value to its owner than the plastic Chinese toy, both because it probably costs a lot more and because the owner appreciates that this is not a disposable item, but something to look after and cherish, something special.
The artisan baker follows a similar, ancient tradition of using his hands and various tools to create bread and pastry, where each bread or pastry is a unique creation.
In a factory production line bakery, bagels are mixed and shaped by machine, transported on a environmentally controlled conveyor belt to a steamer and then to an oven where they are baked, cooled and then electronically bagged and labeled. Human interaction is absent and the machine churns out factory made bagels by the thousands every hour, each exactly the same as its neighbour in appearance, taste, color, etc. etc.
An artisan baker mixes and shapes the bagels by hand, using touch and experience to judge when the dough has been developed to a sufficient degree. He then allows them to rise, all the time checking their progress and taking into account factors such as room temperature, humidity level, etc. and compensating for fluctuations in weather based on his experience and knowledge. He then boils the bagels until they float with just the right bouyancy, again according to experience, and finally he bakes them in a brick oven that uses the same proven technology as ovens from hundreds and even thousands of years ago.
Artisan bagels will not come out looking identical in any way. The shape and color are similar, but each one is a unique, hand made creation. In fact, bagels made one day will probably be different to bagels made on another day, they may be slightly crisper, or a little more chewy. No two bagels made by an artisan are exactly alike.
So why on earth would someone bother to pay more and go to the effort of purchasing artisan bread when he can more easily obtain its factory made counterpart?
With the factory made bagel there are no surprises - it is always the same. It may be good (if the factory has got their details right) or it may be mass produced "edible cardboard" if they have not, but it is always the same. It is, in a word - boring!
In this lies the attraction and appeal of artisan bread. Artisan bread may be better one day and worse another, but then so is wine! What kind of wine would you prefer to buy, factory made wine that is totally lacking in character and is utterly BORING, or a boutique wine made by an expert vinter that has a complexity of bouquet and taste that factory made wine will never have. Remember the vintage of '65, now that was a really good year!
Artisan breads have the capacity to disappoint - if the baker is having a bad day, this will probably be reflected in his bread, but on some days he may be blessed with just the right yin and yang and his bread may be exquisite and inspiring, much like a musician who has an inspired performance.
An artisan's creation of his bread is a labour of love. He puts his very heart and soul into every loaf and the result is evident in the quality of his product. An artisan made bread, cookie or pastry has the ability to whisk you back to your childhood in an instant, to transport you to that European holiday of your youth, or to conjure up that warm memory of when things were simpler and less hectic in our world.
So the next time you want to be inspired by what you eat, try an artisan bread. You may never want to eat the "normal" stuff ever again.
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