What Makes Something Truly Artisanal?

A movement towards sustainability and authenticity has taken hold


Wild Wheat Bakery’s Andrew Fearnside. Picture / Ginny Fisher.

Type the word “artisanal” into American retailer Walmart’s giant website and you might be surprised to find 600 products flaunting artisanal qualities. Artisanal pasta from Italy, gluten-free artisanal cupcakes, artisanal lettuce and this little gem, a book titled How to Sharpen Pencils: A practical and theoretical treatise on the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening. It’s a word so thrashed by marketers it’s now as substantive as an artisanal rice cracker.

But the term once described a process often quite laborious. Derived from the Italian word, artigiano, artisan originally referred to a skilled craftsman who carved or otherwise hand-tooled an item. Now standard descriptions allude to a high quality product made in small quantities, usually employing traditional methods. But you get the feeling some large-volume companies using artisan terminology are clouding its meaning.

Dr Rick Starr, a senior lecturer of marketing for the University of Auckland says words like craft, artisanal and natural have no specific meaning when used in a marketing context, but they do have a resonance. “It’s what we call puffery, it sounds nice, but can’t be proven.” He adds artisanal now has a broader meaning, conjuring up ideas of quality, human-scale production and authenticity; it’s also associated with sustainability and eating locally — of whom ‘locovores’ are champions.

However all of this only makes sense in Western mass society, considering third world countries are forced to resort to traditional, slow, local means to produce food and clothing. “It’s kind of an antidote to modern civilisation,” he explains.

This getting back to our roots idea was spawned by the Slow Food Movement. Rick says Matakana has just applied to be a Slow Food town. We’re not talking increasing siesta time. The group, which started in Italy, celebrates the concept of growing food locally and promoting traditional gastronomy, and opposes fast food, industrial food production and globalisation.

The desire for beverages made in small batches from local harvests, using traditional techniques is what the craft beer market has responded to. Geoff Ross, the CEO of Moa Brewing Company, New Zealand’s largest locally owned craft beer business says consumers want to bring a beer to the party that someone hasn’t seen before, perhaps because it has a story, or like some of their brews, it was aged in a rum barrel. The notion of the product having an origin tale is now more important than ever.

“Twenty years ago consumers wanted to conform to one brand. They were all wearing Nike, or drinking Heineken, it was very much about the global citizen. But there was no individuality in that. Now it’s pretty uncool to be like everyone else.”
Of the overall beer market, Geoff says all the growth is in the craft beer market, while mainstream brands are losing share and the premium international green bottle brands are flat.

Geoff explains the changing tide from the homogenous to the handcrafted began in the wine market. A few decades ago it was either red or white, now there are millions of brands, all with origin stories and sophisticated taste profiles. Spirits followed — Geoff’s garage-brewed 42 Below vodka rode that tide, then it was coffee and tea. Beer was actually the last off the rank he says. But things are changing fast. “When a shepherd in Central Otago is sipping a craft beer, you know things have changed.”

How exactly does a craft beer differ from your can of Speights? Well, to start with they’re made in smaller batches and their ingredients often include specialised hops. Moa’s boutique brewing facility set amid the Blenheim grape vines, often uses sauvi hops in their beer — hops grown in Nelson, that give the taste profile a slight bitter, green character. Moa is also experimenting with ageing beer in pinot noir barrels.

Small runs of specialist batches are also possible. Last year they made a cider spiked with the husk of a coffee bean. “It’s actually an antioxidant,” says Geoff. “They noticed coffee pickers’ hands were very smooth and what they found is the coffee husk is responsible, so we decided to use it in our Cascara cider.”

A big distinguishing factor between mainstream ciders and the Moa craft brand is actually, and absurdly, using apples. “Mainstream ciders mostly use flavouring and ethanol to create the taste, we use Nelson apples and add no sugar.”

Yes, beer and cider drinking has come a long way from the days of downing jugs at the local watering hole. Lager and cheese pairings at craft beer bars, like Brew on Quay signal a sign of the times. But whether we’ll see shepherds in their Swanndris conversing over how Edam complements their Sauvi-hop is another question.

Jeweller Charlotte Penman in her studio. Picture / Guy Coombes.

FLOUR AND WATER

Hot cross buns have a habit of making bread maker Andrew Fearnside a tad cross. After winning the Great NZ Hot Cross Bun competition a few years back, Andrew’s phone went wild with requests for his mouth-watering Easter rolls.

There was no way to feed the masses. Customers were arriving at his factory, clawing to get into his vans, in the hope of snatching one of his prized buns. But the final straw was one particularly put-out customer who repeatedly called him, accusing him of ruining his Easter.

He hasn’t entered that competition again. But Andrew, owner and creator of Wild Wheat Bakery has won Auckland’s best bakery seven years running with his rustic range of artisanal breads, the most well-known of which is his award-winning kumara sour dough — a mouth-watering caramel-tinged loaf with a sharp bite. It’s certifiably addictive.

What makes these loaves sing, says Andrew, is human attention. From the use of a home-brewed yeast starter (he’s kept his alive for 20 years and has back-up brews at home should disaster strike), to the addition of unusual ingredients like unfermented cider, sprouted grains and quinoa porridges to hand-dividing techniques which help the bread rise optimally. In its 48-hour creation this bread is never far from its creator’s beady eyes. “I say to my staff, if you feel like you need to wear a sweater this morning, well the bread might be cold too.”

He’s constantly reminding his staff that temperatures are vital to the successful creation of sour dough — 24 degrees is optimum, too warm too sour, too cold and the dough stays dormant. Old fashion techniques like dividing the bread into floured baskets by hand allows the bread to be infused with air, resulting in a light, fluffy texture.

Andrew’s business is 40 per cent retail — he has three retail bakery outlets in Howick, Mt Eden and Belmont; and 60 per cent wholesale — his largest customer is Farro Fresh. Like many other small producers, Andrew is cautious about growth. Countdown wanted their bread, but he knew the quantity would compromise quality. “Bread making is a natural process, it should have little to do with machinery.”

Andrew shows me a specialty run he is about to bake for Farro Fresh, a cranberry and chocolate loaf to celebrate mid winter. “The fun of this business is you get to experiment with different ingredients. If it doesn’t work, well, you stop making it. If it does it becomes a regular.”

His stint in the bakery department of Terence Conran’s Le Pont de la Tour in London was the turning point in his cooking career. “I just fell in love with the process. I loved everything about bread.”

So on his return in 1999, he started a small wholesale bakery producing dark, crusty, sour, European-style bread. “People thought I was bonkers, it took a while to catch on, but I just stuck to it.”

Even now, in an era of the anti-carb brigade, Andrew has maintained a cult-like following. “If you’re going to eat bread, at least this bread is good for you. All in moderation I say.”

Unlike supermarket bread, Wild Wheat loaves contain no preservatives, no added sugar, just flour, water and salt. It’s not meant to sit around. “Bread is supposed to go stale after a few days. And if it does, heat it up, toast it, or cut it into slices and freeze it.” But when this hand crafted deliciousness is in your pantry, it won’t last long.

Inside the Deadly Ponies workroom. Picture / Supplied.

A CRAFT NOT DEAD

There’s plenty of craft that goes into the 100-odd handmade handbags produced daily at the Deadly Ponies workroom in Newton. At the start of the miniature factory line, the pattern cutter uses a craft knife (no laser cutters here) and a ruler to cut the shapes in thick deer hide leather sourced from Timaru. Then the bags are laid out according to shape and hue and sewed by one of only three sewing staff. At the end of the line, handles are trimmed with scissors and solid brass hardware is clamped into place with a prehistoric-looking clamper. “I’ve always had the desire to make stuff,” says Liam Bowden, owner, creator and designer of the New Zealand-made line.

But he’s not into making any old bags. “We’re not into making cheap stuff, or throwing leather out,” he adds. Unlike larger handbag manufacturers, who may use cheap, low quality cow hides and plated hardware, and incur wastage in materials due to their production processes, these purses are made from top quality deer hides, and solid brass fittings. Scraps are also utilised whenever possible, and when not, offered to local kindergartens.

Consequently these thick, dimpled, leather bags last. Liam explains most of the big luxury houses use deer hide too, but generally thinner, cheaper hide that isn’t drummed. Drumming involves the hide being dyed and tossed around in a barrel to give it a textured quality.

Lesser quality hides won’t survive this process and are stamped to make the hide appear drummed. And while Deadly Ponies make their bags locally, many other luxury brands will do their best to keep labour costs down by making the bag in China then shipping it back to home base, often Europe, to finish the bag off. There’s your made in Italy stamp.

However, Deadly Ponies’ small manufacturing capacity does impact the amount of bags they can supply. “Often we’ll be sold out of a line before it hits the shop floor, which makes stocking shops difficult. We’ve said no to Barneys New York and Selfridges for that reason.”

The company landed an account with David Jones in Sydney and Liam hopes to keep up supply by opening the factory in the weekends.

Another challenge is finding staff willing to learn the craft. “We’ll often advertise for months before we can fill a sewing position.”

Subsequently the factory has a large number of students, who may not be employed for long periods. The constant conundrum of growth is always on Liam’s mind.

“We can’t really scale up without moving some of our production off shore.” But quality isn’t something Liam is willing to compromise

CARVING BEAUTY

Charlotte Penman’s fingers move at lightning speed. Today, the jewellery designer and crafter connects a delicate chain with links as small as pinheads. Her workbench is strewn with stones and chains, pliers and wires. While she works she tells me she began making jewellery to keep her hands busy and satisfy her creative urges while travelling through India and Asia. “It’s a moving meditation. It keeps me calm.”

Peace is something she rarely has with a busy life as mother to two young children, soon to be three, which makes escaping to her quaint garden shed studio a rare treat. The bulk of Charlotte’s clients are bespoke. Presently she’s working on a series of 13 lockets for a family and a ring for a man who sourced an incredible sapphire from Sri Lanka who wants it made into a ring for his wife.

Charlotte, a graduate of fine art and sculpture from Elam, makes use of many skills in the jewellery making process, many of which were learned on the job. She was taught wire techniques by an Israeli girl while making silk cord and pearl belly chains — a laborious process involving drilling hundreds of holes through pearls and weaving the silk with gold chains.

She still draws up her designs, and sometimes uses wax carving tools to make a mould. At other times she works with a master goldsmith or travels to Bali to have wax moulds made. “I love that pre-Victorian era jewellery, something that looks a bit beaten up.”

She hand renders effects onto the surface at the end of the process. Charlotte began collecting precious and semi-precious stones in India and Asia, many of her favourite hand-picked stones come from Pushkar in Rajasthan.

Her collections are often based on stories she’s attracted to, one was based on a fossil finding archeologist who was the inspiration for the ‘seashells on the sea shore’ tongue-twisting rhyme. Like most artisans, Charlotte’s challenge is keeping up with demand. She too has turned down opportunities to sell in larger markets like New York. But she’s all right with that. “I’ve come to the point that it’s really about making art.”

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