Craft or artisan?

26 February, 2010
Page 18 

Paul Merry, a craft baker and teacher at Panary Breadmaking School, Dorset, continues the debate

In both the advertising world and industrial baking, the need for catchphrases is a powerful force for debasing language and broadening the appeal of certain phrases to a point where they tip over into meaninglessness. One of the first casualties I noticed was "homemade". Seen on the side of lorries delivering industrially-made foodstuffs, soon any comparison between factory food and what could be made at home seemed merely humorous.

With commercial bread, two similar casualties have been "craft" and, lately, "artisan". For the corporate world, the term "craft" had an image that was ready to be borrowed, bastardised and debased. During the 1990s, I preferred to use the word "artisan" to refer to the baker or firm that was still actively engaged with the craft of fermentation. Although a tiny sector, the artisanal bakers could recognise each other fairly easily, and still do today. An initiative, spearheaded by bakery writer and consultant Dan Lepard to create a trade group called the British Association of Artisan Bakers, had trouble getting off the ground, mainly because hard-working artisan bakers never had time to devote to meetings.

During the few that were held, it was challenging and exciting to find a suitable definition of the craftsman/artisan in order for the group to be able to identify those worthy to be its members. The charge of elitism reared its head during lengthy discussions that involved trying to find the code of practice that made a craftsman. Was the tradesman baker who used chemical "improvers" in his bread to be banned when he still worked dough by hand on a wooden bench with the obvious skills of a craftsman?

During the past decade, I have now given up the word "artisan" and have been driven back to the words "craft" and "tradesman" baker. The craft baker can be forgiven for wanting some machines to speed up the process or boost the output capable of being produced by one session of work. But sometimes, the dough's journey from mixer to oven is so steadily mechanised that the bakers can only be described as machine minders.

So, for me, the main thing that indicates whether or not the bakery is a "craft" establishment is the inclusion of that process of constantly making judgements about the state of the dough and its readiness to go to the next stage. Most of these establishments, although mechanised, will also have the bakers shaping by hand those types of loaf, that cannot be properly turned out by the moulding machine. Similarly, there are types of loaves, like sourdough, where the moulding machine would be too rough hence they are done by hand.

Another contentious word was "fresh", but there is not sufficient time here to go into that story!





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