One of the hottest trends in the international culinary circuit is that of artisanal foods. The demand for artisanal food is slowly increasing in India as well, with a number of speciality food stores offering artisanal produce. However, in an age where the market for mass packaged food products has exploded, it is still a segment which has not optimised its potential in the Indian market, says Sheeba Madan.
So what is artisanal food?
From pickles, jams, cheeses, beverage concentrates, choorans, chocolates to breads – the word “artisanal” is increasingly being brandished to describe homemade, small-batch products. In the West, while initially they could only be procured at farmer’s markets that displayed everything from stinky cheeses, tough breads to organic honey, today artisanal foods are more accessible and have indeed become fashionable to consume.
Unfortunately, no official definition or standard for artisan foods exists. As a consequence the word has come to be used as a marketing label. In 2011, DataMonitor reported that more than 800 new food products labeled artisan had entered the market in the previous five years. According to Michigan State University, the artisan label is even being used by fast food chains, pizza joints and manufacturers of frozen convenience foods in an attempt to distinguish their products from more typical offerings.
However, those serious about good food agree that there are a few things that make a food product artisanal. It refers to foods being made by hand using traditional methods, of superior quality and made in small batches. This means artisanal food is not for mass consumption or for keeping indefinitely. It has to be consumed fresh.
A food artisan is someone who is completely and wholly integrated into the creation of their product. It follows that artisanal products can only be made on a small scale. “Artisan” is a term used to describe food produced by non-industrialised methods, often handed down through generations but now in danger of being lost. Tastes and processes are allowed to develop slowly and naturally, rather than curtailed for mass-production.
Artisanal food is fun to learn about and try out. Do write to us and tell us about your grandma’s special food processing technique that you tried out. We would love to hear from you.
According to the School of Artisan Food, there is no single definition of artisan food. Artisan producers should understand and respect the raw materials with which they work, they should know where these materials come from and what is particularly good about them. They should have mastered the craft of their particular production and have a historical, experiential, intuitive and scientific understanding of what makes the process that they are engaged in successful. They should know what tastes good and be sensitive to the impact of their production on people and the environment. Artisan food producers get better over time and probably never stop improving or tweaking their practise, learning from other people and their own mistakes.
The artisan process requires a specific knowledge, caring or philosophy and is most often carried out by hand. Furthermore, artisan foods have been associated with fresh, non- or minimally processed and often, locally sourced ingredients.
A couple of decades ago in India, most things people owned and consumed were made by hand. But when production moved to factories, machines and factory workers replaced skilled craftspeople and homemakers who had perfected recipes handed over generations. The mechanisation of food processing came later as did the increasing consumption of foods processed in factories which is leading to obesity and diabetes.
Femina reports that artisanal food differs in taste from mass produced food and is in fact far superior to pre-packaged and mass produced food in terms of nutritional quality as well. Chef Clinton Cooper, Executive Chef - Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai is quoted as saying, “Indians are becoming more health conscious and are really careful of what they put into their bodies with an increased awareness of the chemicals, additives and preservatives used by bulk food manufacturers.”
How can a consumer distinguish between a marketing gimmick and real artisan food? The Hartman Group suggests asking three questions of the product: Does a real person craft this product with care? Is it made by hand, in small batches or limited quantities using specialty ingredients? Does it reflect expertise, tradition, passion, a process? Ultimately, the only way to learn the answers to these questions is to have a relationship with the person who crafted the products you seek to buy. This is impossible to do with supermarket, fast or frozen food products.
Femina quotes Chef Ananda Solomon saying that industrial processed foods may not have any immediate side effects, but they may have a long-term impact on future generations and us. India has a long-standing tradition of producing artisanal food, though it may not be labelled as such: the pickles, papads and chutneys that have been family favourites for generations. Chef Cooper says that foods available at local farmers markets are often cheaper and better since you can buy directly from the grower.
So, next time you shop in your neighbourhood farmer’s market or mandi, don’t limit yourself to raw ingredients.
Take a longer look (and a few samples) of some of the amazing products from our modern artisans. If you don’t have the time or skill to make something special at home, buy it from someone doing it on a small scale, with great ingredients, in your own neighbourhood. Not only will you be doing your health a favour but you will also be helping preserve our food processing techniques perfected over centuries. You will be making a contribution to craft, specialisation, generational knowledge and cultural ownership.