Joanna Blythman: There's a lot of artisan fakery about
If you’re looking for organic, locally produced, handcrafted food, read the label carefully
I’m a massive fan of true artisan food, handmade with craft and skill on a small scale. In a world where an apparent cornucopia of food choices boils down to multiple variations on the same mass-produced thing, it’s stimulating to visit small shops or food markets that offer something different. Unfortunately, the word ‘artisan’ is prone to misrepresentation and abuse.
Here’s a case in point. Recently, I visited an upmarket village shop that made great play of its association with food producers in the vicinity. A local company was handing out free samples of its pies. Two salesmen stood behind the tasting table with a sign that read ‘100% natural’ and ‘locally made’. I always check the ingredients label on every packaged product before I eat it, irrespective of how posh and upmarket it appears. These pies contained controversial palm oil (its cultivation is notorious for destroying Malaysian and Indonesian forests) as well as ‘flavouring’ (that’s a mysterious concoction of synthetic chemicals). Neither are ingredients I’d expect to find in anything authentically artisan.
There’s no legal definition of ‘artisan’, so anyone can dream up his or her own. But what puzzles me about this all-too-common marketing pitch is this: are the makers of such products trying to pull the wool over our eyes? Or are they just naive, ill-informed, or simply guilty of failing to dig down deeply enough into the provenance of the materials they’re using to make their pricey products? Either way, it doesn’t give me confidence in them.
In a totally different farm shop the other day, I came across a promising-looking box of oatcakes. True, they cost £3.25, about twice the price of the more common, less flashy, oatcake brands, but on occasion I’d pay that for an oatcake that was genuinely special – made with stone-milled oats and butter, perhaps. Well, guess what: they were made with margarine, a substance I cannot associate with fine food in any form. What bothers me about these faux artisan propositions is that they provide ample evidence for cynics who say that artisan is just a prettily packaged stunt to sell something ordinary, for a brazen premium, to people who have more money than sense.
I’ll defend the principle that true artisan food, which involves more time, craft, and human effort, has to be sold for more than the factory equivalent. From production methods to packaging, small companies don’t benefit from the same economies of scale as big brands. But I can’t help thinking that small outlets showcasing their products should do their homework. That means examining thoroughly, on their customers’ behalf, whether the raw materials actually justify the marketing hype.
I wonder what goes through the mind of the deli or farm shop owner and the food hall buyer when a sales rep arrives on their premises, asking them to stock their latest ‘artisan’ offering. I’d hope they’d know enough to assess its essential quality before they start considering its packaging appeal and potential price point, but there’s no such guarantee. The onus, then, falls on the consumer. There’s a lot of artisan fakery about. Read the ingredients list before parting with a penny.
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Should shop owners do more to prevent artisan fakery? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.