What precisely is artisan, and why is it so important?

My inspiration for writing this was sparked when I read an advert that had been following me around on socials for a few days. The advert in question was called the “Artisan Wheel of Cheese” - four to six cheeses blended with various fruits and other unconventional ingredients. It got me thinking, can that actually be artisan?

You see, when it comes to cheese, I hold the term “artisan” very dearly. At Rennet & Rind, all of our cheeses come from what I consider to be artisan producers based on family-run farms or from independent cheesemakers. None of their cheeses have pieces of fruit or any other non-milk ingredient in them. So, let’s explore what actually sets apart the artisans from the non-artisans

What Is an Artisan?

Let's start with the definition, I’ll save you a Google. An artisan is “A worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.” It’s a loose definition and usually, it is in those loose descriptions where you will find large corporations lurking. Almost everyone likes artisan products because they are always indicative of top quality that you won’t get in large-scale, supermarket-packed cheese. Can these worlds collide? Some will say, "It's just fruit in the cheese Perry, chill out!" However, I think the question, and the answer for that matter, lies in how the fruit gets in there as an ingredient.

How Corporations Blur the Artisan Line

Corporations capitalise on the unprotected and loose definition of artisan cheese and take some of the artisan processes and morph it into something built for large-scale production.

Essentially, large-scale cheeses are manufactured from giant blocks of cheese which are made using the precision of machines and computers calculating the correct amount of starter culture and the precise amount of rennet to use to get a good set. The mountain of cheese is matured in large vacuum bags, and then comes the addition of the flavours.

Let's take a look at how the fruit actually gets in there. First, the cheese is grated up and flushed through a pinwheel as the fruit is precisely added. Then the cheese is rounded, and usually wax-coated, or vacuum-packed with some bright-coloured branding. This whole process can happen over the course of a few months or sometimes less. The result is a short sharp experience where there's not much fun going on in the complexity of the cheese, but the flavouring of fruit will become the dominant flavour. This is a generalisation, and I will admit these processes can vary from producer to producer.

Now ask yourself, do you think this is artisan production? I would imagine the majority of you would say no. Then some of you may quickly ask me, “Why does it matter?”. Well, it might do in the future, particularly with the number of trade deals being negotiated and the direct threat of altering the quality of our British food to undercut its price. Is this another attempt at corporations utilising a well-noted and respected term to sell more of their product and for higher profits?

Is There Any Merit to Supermarket Cheese?

I wouldn’t want you to think I am beating up these cheeses, they do have a place in the market. Firstly, on price; they are pretty much always attainable to any demographic, which could be the gateway to becoming more interested in artisan cheese. Perhaps they may be someone’s first steps into the cheese world, or perhaps a youngster might see a cheddar mixed with a fruit they like and beg mum and dad for it. That might be the beginning of someone’s journey to becoming a fan of farmstead cheese. You never know - they might be reading this article right now.

So, to summarise, the term “artisan” isn't protected, so the only way it can become protected is via consumer opinion and choice. We must realise that it's far too easy to put an artisan label on a commercially-made product for a couple of pennies than it is for a small family cheese-making farm to invest in top-of-the-range, complex manufacturing equipment, costing millions, to make their cheeses more cost viable to the likes of supermarkets.

Essentially, this is a call to leave the artisan brand alone. Do your own thing, you do it well, but let the artisan label be the beacon of the highest quality that our British Isles holds.

At Rennet & Rind, we’ve curated a finely crafted collection of artisan cheese that all comes from local farms that make it the artistic way. We’re an award-winning cheesemonger and affineur, and our online store is a treasure trove of many unique and quality cheese varieties that will excite your tastebuds. If you’d like to try a selection of some of our finest cheeses in one package, try our ever-popular mystery cheese box to have a curated selection of five of our highlights. It’s the best way to taste the pleasures of Rennet & Rind’s acclaimed artisan cheeses.

Perry James Wakeman

Head Cheesemonger of Rennet & Rind. Qualified MonS Affineur, World Cheese Awards Judge and Patron/Trainer of The Academy of Cheese.

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