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Artisanal Food Producers

Artisanal food products—cheese, bread, pasta, jams, chocolates, confections, sauces, preserves, condiments, beverages, ice cream, and a wide variety of other foods—are produced in every American region. Almost by definition, artisanal producers are small, craft-oriented operations. These food artisans attempt to use the highest quality ingredients and techniques to create an array of quality gourmet food products that almost always cost more than their mass-produced counterparts. Many true artisanal food products will be available on site, right at the dairy, bakery or small factory where they are produced. A number of artisanal producers give on-site classes or institutes in traditional techniques; some work with local universities and agricultural colleges in training programs for their industries. The University of Vermont, for example, maintains an Institute of Artisanal Cheese and offers a range of courses in its Certificate Cheesemaking Program. Most major culinary schools offer courses and even degree programs in artisanal bread baking.

Craft bread bakeries and artisanal cheese makers have been particularly active in the United States over the past few decades, as the American public has become more discriminating about its food choices. In a common scenario, the producer may study traditional European techniques or American craft techniques of previous eras and apply them to raw materials available in the United States. The California premium olive oil industry is a perfect example; operators frequently need to import specialized presses and machinery from France or Italy, or even bring in experts from other countries to help assure a quality product. Fine gourmet olive oils have resulted, forced by the complexity of the production process to be expensive. Bread bakers have been known to import entire traditional brick ovens from Europe, or reconstruct them based on European designs. In the pizza world, real brick wood-fired ovens are becoming more common.

Artisanal producers may be located in the heart of large cities, as is the case of a small company that manufactures the Italian frozen confection “gelato” in Philadelphia. The gelateria uses imported Italian machinery to produce their gelato in batches of only a few gallons at a time using only local raw materials: milk from hormone-free, grass-fed cows, combined with in-season fruits and berries from local organic growers, yielding an array of 250 flavors that devotees are best advised to try at the company’s two Philadelphia locations. The techniques and expertise are Italian, the product 100% American in content.

Another Philadelphia artisanal producer, a bakery, successfully outlasted the American love affair with low-carbohydrate foods, refusing to add low-carbohydrate flours to its repertoire because it felt they would compromise the integrity of their craft baked products. The bakery has succeeded in its local market with traditional breads like “cracked wheat,” “multigrain,” and other formulations that fit the public’s desire for rich, chewy loaves. The bakery has a number of retail stores in the city and also ships to mail order and Internet customers.

The artisanal bread industry is one area where taste and texture must be the final judge, since many breads labeled as “craft” bread are actually mass-produced. Some large grocery chains provide their stores with pre-measured dough for the stores to bake in-house, offering the bread in attractive, rustic packages. Large bakery operations also produce gourmet breads that are much more appealing than their mass-produced cousins, but that still don’t have the level of quality of true artisanal breads, which require a great deal of personal attention from skilled bakers. Pepperidge Farm (a subsidiary of Campbell Soup), for example, produces its Pepperidge Farm Artisan Bread in styles with evocative titles: Sourdough Petite Loaves, Rosemary Olive Oil Petite Loaves, Hearty Wheat Rolls, and French Demi-Baguettes. Quality sourdough breads, which many people prefer, are almost impossible to produce in industrial quantities.

A similar dichotomy exists in artisanal cheeses. Dedicated small producers produce wonderful cheeses; large companies imitate them with products that are often excellent but not quite at the craft level. The mass-produced products typically have rustic labels, evocative of country life, farms, purity and wholesomeness. They manage to please many consumers, but the true connoisseurs look beyond the package.

Artisanal producers are focused and committed. A Wisconsin producer of “artisanal farmstead” cheese advertises that its products are made “in the style and tradition of mountain cheeses from the alpine region of France.” The cheese is produced from non-pasteurized milk taken from a single herd of local grass-fed cows. A cheese maker in Washington State produces craft cheese, also French-style, from the milk of its own Alpine goats and East Freisan-Lacaune sheep. No additives or antibiotics are used. The animals are fed only natural grains and alfalfa hay. An Indiana cheese maker produces its “farmstead chevre” goat cheese from its own herd, selling its own and other craft cheeses at its small market. A New York State artisanal cheese producer remarks that, “working with local grass-based dairy farmers has been inspiring. We add value to their milk and they add value to our life and to yours.”

Artisanal foods are alive and well in the United States, supported by demands from restaurateurs as well as from the discerning public. From time to time, an artisanal producer will be so successful in setting or presaging a consumer trend that it will grow into a major national food producer; this has occurred in the case of several alternative ice-creams, snacks, and beverages. There have been cases in which artisanal producers have elected deliberately to remain small, despite popular acclaim, in order to maintain the quality of their products, others in which the producers have successfully instituted manufacturing controls that allow great production without sacrificing quality, and others still in which the most appealing aspect of the product that remains is a cleverly-designed label.