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What do you think "artisanal" means?


Fat Guy
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But Steve, we already have words for quite good and tasty. They are: "quite" and "good" and "tasty". "Artisinal" means made by skilled workers associated with a trade, possibly by hand. Even if they make shit, it is still artisinal.

There is a kitchen slang - "shoemaker". It means someone who is only doing their job, collecting their paycheck, not putting any love or art or passion into their work. It is an insult, but ironically, a shoemaker is an artisan. Maybe that's why I don't define artisan as tasty. (That and my childish reliance on the dictionary.)

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Schaem - You can use artisanal any way you want. I am just relaying how the market uses it. And the more prevelant artisanal products become, if they are commercially successful to a certain extent, the use of the term will be bastardized by large corporations. Such is life. Then those who really care about food will adopt a new term that means made by hand and high quality.

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I've been reading Treasures of the Italian Table -- Italy's Celebrated Foods and the Artisans Who Make Them, by Burton Anderson (published 1994). In the Introduction, he writes, "They [artisans] include butchers, bakers, cheesemakers, vintners, coffee roasters, millers, farmers, and cooks, among others .... Yet everywhere, as I've come to know these masters of taste, I've been struck by how much skill, devotion, and just plain hard work distinguish a bona fide original from a slick copy." Anderson includes such people as the trifolau (and their dogs, cani da tartufo, as well) as artisans, as well as growers of rice (for risotto). He quotes a rice farmer and teacher of risicoltura: "Rice is a little world of its own ... but not much has been written aobut it, probably because to outsiders it all looks so monotonous. I mean, who would imagine that rice has vintage years, much as wine does, though they're never publicized, or that certain growing areas produce superior quality and could be considered crus?"

Besides truffles and rice, the book profiles artisan producers of pane toscano (miller and baker), pasta, olive oil, pizza napoletana, parmigiano reggiano, wine, culatello (a prosciutto-like meat made from the pig's butt), Florentine beefsteak and balsamic vinegar. All of these products begin with a careful cultivating of crops or raising of animals, so it made me think that all the different levels that lead to the end product have to be considered as part of the artisanal process.

While the term artisanal may become commercialized and corrupted, does that mean that we should scoff at the term? Doesn't it make more sense to try to educate our palates to what really differentiates a marketing ploy from real, deep tastes?

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Artisinal is perceived by most people to mean "made by an artist" or an person who is skilled in the particular art or craft. The by-product of this association is made in "small quantities" not mass produced, involves a labor intensive process, not automated by machines,

includes the personal oversight on one of two individuals for each product or item produced.

For example, an artisinal sausage is one made in small quantities, using the least advanced production methods and overseen by a metier or master, who creates the recipe, sources the ingredients and passes judgement on the final product before it is sold.

Could Citterrio make an artisinal sausage? Sure. Would they, no. They'd lose their shirt on it, or have to charge a ridiculously high price that no one would by it, except a few EGullet members. Do they produce sausages that they want to be perceived as artisinal. Sure. Is that evil?

Artisans use it as a marketing term to tell people what they are selling. Such terms as "hand made" or "small batch" or "special production run" "made by the master" are used to convey care, attention and skill in the making.

When Steve says that's how the market uses the term, he's right, in that it is loose enough to be used any way people want. You can't legally say "made by hand" if the product isn't. But that's not the case with words that have no established trade-legal definition.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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"Authentic", food with "roots", "traditional" "ancestral recipes", are all terms in vogue to convey not mass produced and therefore worth a premium price.

The bourbon market exploded in the last 5 years with small batch bourbons selling for very high prices. Bill Samuels started the trend with Makers Mark, which was really a hand made, small batch, "artisinal" spirit. The company was bought by Allied Domeq, and for all the wax on the bottle neck, I'd doubt that it is artisinal any more.

But it sells a lot of bourbon at much higher margins than Jim Beam.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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"Authentic", food with "roots", "traditional" "ancestral recipes", are all terms in vogue to convey not mass produced and therefore worth a premium price. 

The bourbon market exploded in the last 5 years with small batch bourbons selling for very high prices.  Bill Samuels started the trend with Makers Mark,  which was really a hand made, small batch, "artisinal" spirit.  The company was bought by Allied Domeq, and for all the wax on the bottle neck, I'd doubt that it is artisianl any more.

But it sells a lot of bourbon at much higher margins than Jim Beam.

And Makers Mark doesn't taste as good as it used to, either. Neither does Knob Creek -- was that bought up, or was it simply a big increase in production?

Tassajara Bakery in the Bay Area used to make wonderful potato bread when it was a small operation, and then they were bought by Just Desserts (I think) and the taste of the bread went downhill really quickly.

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There are really two answers to the original question posed. One is what we think the true definition of the word is, disregarding any profit motive and the other is what the marketplace has positioned the word to mean as an incentive for consumers to buy a particular product.

Artisanal means, “made in the manner of an artisan”. And, I’ll have you know, that “artist” is the given synonym of “artisan” in The Random House American Dictionary. Therefore one could say “artisanal” can be defined as “made by an artist or made in an artistic manner”. The word "artisanal" does not exist in this fairly large dictionary.

Of course, that’s not exactly how I would define it. My definition would include the following: handcrafted as opposed to manufactured (a word if taken apart meaning made by hand, but that’s another discussion); emphasis on quality rather than on the quantity of the final product; primary focus on pride of product rather than marketability (not to say marketability isn’t in the equation, only that pride of product supersedes it) and passion and dedication of the producers. On second thought it sounds a lot like making art.

No wonder Madison Avenue wants to co-opt the word.

What it has come to mean is anything exotic, expensive, made by elves in small batches (other than Keebler) and hasn't been made in this manner since 1734.

Edited by stefanyb (log)
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Plotnicki, jaybee,

I agree that any word with appeal will be co-opted be marketers and diluted. Fine. We'll come up with new words. Fine. But, I, for one, would like to state my opposition. I thought I was a cynic, but Jesus! You guys make it sound like selling out and making crap and marketing crap as something special is ok just because you (we?) know better. I know I'm powerless to change the way the mass market works, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with it. Plotnicki, you want to re-write the dictionary just because some scumbag adman tells you too? Fine, just don't give me a copy.

Edited by schaem (log)
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Schaem - You can use artisanal any way you want. I am just relaying how the market uses it. And the more prevelant artisanal products become, if they are commercially successful to a certain extent, the use of the term will be bastardized by large corporations. Such is life. Then those who really care about food will adopt a new term that means made by hand and high quality.

It seems that Steve and Schaem have each hit the nail on the head, although they're driving it back and forth through the plank. Fat Guy asked what we think artisanal means. Schaem explains the more traditional meaning of the word -- made by a fine craftsman. Steve is simply pointing out that today, when a consumer sees the word "artisanal" on a product, she shouldn't expect more than a hope for higher quality but, in the end, its really just become a marketing term. Shaem -- I don't read Steve as making any value judgment on large corporations adopting the terms artisanal. He hasn't offered an opinion on whether corporations are selling out or scamming the public. He's just saying that's what they do. True, maybe those who really care about food will try to influence some higher meaning to the term, but nowadays artisanal don't necessarily mean anything.

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True, maybe those who really care about food will try to influence some higher meaning to the term [...]

It could happen, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Once upon a time, 'gay' meant 'happy.' 'Hacker' meant 'one skilled in computers.' 'Alternative' music wasn't put out by major labels.

'Artisanal' has already been co-opted, tragic though it may be.

Get over it.

...nowadays artisanal don't necessarily mean anything.

Sad but true. Doesn't matter what the term is, the marketing/media types will eventually adopt and kill it.

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Let's start in pedagogue mode, which may, or may not, continue. An artisin is something perpetretated by modern "conceptual" artists like Tracey Emin on a gullible liberal intelligentsia. An artisan is a skilled craftsman or woman who produces work which requires manual dexterity but also has some connotations with the use of mechanical devices. So a potter who uses uses a computer controlled wheel and a nuclear oven is no less an artisan than one who uses a treadle driven wheel and a clay oven. The artisan part comes in mastery of the tools, so modern techniques and devices do not necessarily negate the skill or craft of the artisan.

So to the word artisanal which in its broadest sense can be stated as made by, or in the manner of, an artisan which in turn implies that some degree of skill or craft has been exercised by the producer(s) obtaining the end product. The real question is in how much automation is allowed in the process before it becomes purely mechanical, thus removing the element of individual or group skill. In a simple illustration if an artist takes a mass-produced vase and then decorates it entirely by hand is it an artisanal product? Or if the same vase is cast by hand and then mechanically sprayed or coloured on a production line is it still artisanal? With bread, like the Poilane loaf, which can be made with as much or as little automation as you wish, where is the dividing line. Some might posit that all processes have to be done by hand, which is wrong because then it would be hand-made but not necessarily artisanal because it lacks the mechanical assistance inferred in the preceding definition. Others might say it can all be automated as long as at each critical stage it is assessed and corrected as necessary by a skilled person, but even this has inherent difficulties because does the skill come from experience, training and knowledge or does it come from the ability to handle analytical and measurement tools and refer the results to some pre-determined courses of action.

So where does this get us, other than in a lexical tangle? I think for most people the word artisanal means that the product has been produced either directly by, or under the close control of, a skilled person but the boundaries will always be subjective. Incidentally I don't think there is a direct causal link between artisanal and good quality, indeed some prize artisanal goods for the slight imperfections they contain on the basis that it shows human intervention. As for good, or better, taste, that is such a subjective area that I'm not even going to start down that road.

Having arrived at a definition that suits me (and feel free to differ) what the rest of the world does with it takes us straight Through the Looking Glass:

When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you CAN make words mean so many different things."

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In typical fashion, the FG has asked a complex question simply. What do we think the word artisinal means? Not "How is it defined in the dictionary?", which is a much easier question to answer. Just look it up.

Some individuals here have given a definition relating to craft, to handwork. This is accurate.

Steve has given the definition as the term has been loaded with baggage and foisted by marketeers upon less careful-thinking consumers. This is also accurate.

I said on one of the Italian threads (and Toby has echoed in her post) that what we call artisinal, the Italians call living. That's the way I prefer to think of it.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Definitions of terms to describe products are made by the market that trades in those products. This is the good part/bad part of a free market. Human Bean's example of alternative music is the perfect one. What was originally termed alternative music, which was played by bands using less then the top recording techniques, and released by independant labels, just became a type of mass marketed music. But even after it was released by major labels it was still recognizeable as alternative music.

The issue with the word artisanal is how large a marketplace is interested in products that fit the mold. Right now I think it's a small market and the consumers who make up the market are interested in the product actually tasting a certain way. As the market grows larger the people will be less discerning and they will come to accept the definition as being "made in the manner of." And as long as there is some insignificant increase in quality that they can tie to the word, they will be happy. JD raised this point on the last thread on this topic. If you walk through the old town of Nice, there are loads of bakeries that advertise their products as being "artisanally fabricated" but they are selling cheaply made junk. But they are still using the phrase correctly. So Schaem I think this is more about the food elite coopting the word for their own use then this is about Kraft using it improperly.

Robert S. - Thanks for that very artisanally crafted answer :wink:.

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I'm more of a simpleton than you give me credit for. Schonfeld. I didn't even exactly ask what people think artisanal means. What I asked was:

When somebody calls a product "artisanal" what do you assume it implies, if anything?

As a writer (stop laughing) I'm often thinking in these terms. It's not so much what the word actually means or what people think the definition of the word is, but rather how readers will interpret the word when I use it in my writing. The impetus for me asking this particular question -- though it's not my agenda because the decision isn't mine and at this point I'm just curious -- was a conversation I had with an editor about my use of artisanal to describe a product that's not hand-made, small-production, or farmstead but is nonetheless delicious, nuanced, differentiated, finely crafted, sensitive to natural product characteristics, etc., than the equivalent mass-produced supermarket garbage.

If anybody is reading any current food magazines or newspaper food sections and stumbles across the word used in context by competent writers, I'd love to see those quotes.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm more of a simpleton than you give me credit for. Schonfeld.

If you insist, FG.

My error, though, for not having gone back to the top and checked.

Perhaps if you had been explicit about your motive, your readers here could have been more direct in their replies.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Perhaps if you had been explicit about your motive, your readers here could have been more direct in their replies.

Right RS. FG is a provocateur. You could just see him thinking "wait until Plotnicki and a few purists start fighting over this one...heheheh."

"what do you asume it implies" means what do you think most people interpret it to mean. It does not ask what should it mean, or what is the actual derivative of the the word. Nor does the question ask for any value judgements. So do you have your answer FG?

Edited by jaybee (log)
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my use of artisanal to describe a product that's not hand-made, small-production, or farmstead but is nonetheless delicious, nuanced, differentiated, finely crafted, sensitive to natural product characteristics, etc., than the equivalent mass-produced supermarket garbage.

Other than the "finely crafted" part of your definition it does appear that you are stretching the use of the word to cover taste or quality, neither of which are explicit in any correct definition of the word. For instance Penfolds is Australia's largest winemaker, and makes extensive use of all the modern techniques on a mass production basis, nevertheless much of their output is significantly better in terms of taste (and value) than many of the boutique or artisanal wines from small producers.

Artisanal relates to the means or style of production NOT the end result.

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a conversation I had with an editor about my use of artisanal to describe a product that's not hand-made, small-production, or farmstead but is nonetheless delicious, nuanced, differentiated, finely crafted, sensitive to natural product characteristics, etc., than the equivalent mass-produced supermarket garbage.

I suggest using "artisinal-like" in this case, which implies having the charcteristics of an artisinal product but not actually being one. That would be accurate, honest and satisfy the purists. "quasi-artisinal" is another alternative but it has a more critical cast to it.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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I'm more of a simpleton than you give me credit for. Schonfeld. I didn't even exactly ask what people think artisanal means. What I asked was:

When somebody calls a product "artisanal" what do you assume it implies, if anything?

As a writer (stop laughing) I'm often thinking in these terms. It's not so much what the word actually means or what people think the definition of the word is, but rather how readers will interpret the word when I use it in my writing. The impetus for me asking this particular question -- though it's not my agenda because the decision isn't mine and at this point I'm just curious -- was a conversation I had with an editor about my use of artisanal to describe a product that's not hand-made, small-production, or farmstead but is nonetheless delicious, nuanced, differentiated, finely crafted, sensitive to natural product characteristics, etc., than the equivalent mass-produced supermarket garbage.

If anybody is reading any current food magazines or newspaper food sections and stumbles across the word used in context by competent writers, I'd love to see those quotes.

The title of the thread was "What do you think 'artisanal' means?".

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Artisanal relates to the means or style of production NOT the end result.

Do you think that's the current usage in food writing, though?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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When Steve says that's how the market uses the term, he's right, in that it is loose enough to be used any way people want.  You can't legally say "made by hand" if the product isn't.  But that's not the case with words that have no established trade-legal definition.

It sure is a loose term. I can't even find it in the dictionary.

I think I'll go to Central Market today and ask if I can speak to the artist who made my bread.

Everyone seems to be right here. The question is, how long will it take for the word "artisanal" to get a trade-legal definition? Does anyone really care?

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