Campaign coordinator Chris Young says it’s time to take a stand to protect shoppers looking for genuine artisan bread and the bakers who make it.
Until around 2015, the word ‘artisan’ is one that the Campaign tended to avoid. One reason for this is the cultural baggage the word carries, which we felt might create an unnecessary distraction from our work. For some people, the word has connotations of elitism and exclusion, which couldn’t be further from our mission of helping more people (ideally everyone) having the chance to choose additive-free loaves.
Another is that we suspected that attempts to gain consensus around a definition (let alone get it onto the statute books) would open a whole can of worms. Frankly, we have so much work to do that other things took greater priority.
So, what changed? Happily, the world is fast catching up with the Campaign, not to mention the bakers who have been keeping it real since long before our foundation back in 2008. We can all be proud that people are accepting that not all loaves are created equal. A further badge of honour is that people more people understand ‘artisan bread’, crafted by a skilled and experienced baker, to be superior even to the great Real Bread they can bake at home.
Sadly, this cachet has led to ‘artisan bread’, and related linguistic and visual cues, being hijacked. As we have said time and again in our continuing calls for an Honest Crust Act, there is no legal protection for shoppers from being lured in by misuse or even abuse of the word. In May 2016, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rejected a complaint made by the Campaign about an ‘artisan bread’ packet mix that ‘gives bakers the opportunity to enter this lucrative market without the need to invest in specialist staff.’ The ASA’s reasoning? Professional bakers ‘will be aware of what Artisan means’ and shoppers seeing the word expect merely ‘artisan-style bread’, so nobody is being misled. Hmm…
Some loaf fabricators and retailers are now using the language and proving baskets of genuine artisan bakers to manufacture and market products bear little more than a superficial resemblance to Real Bread crafted by an expert. Their pricing may similtaneously be at a premium level (surely a disservice to the unsuspecting shopper) and undercut genuine artisans who help support more jobs per loaf and keep our high streets alive.
Opening the worm can
It’s perhaps easier to say what artsan bread isn’t - it's not a trend or a look, and certainly not made using corner-cutting additives in lieu of proving time or enhanced baking skills and knowledge.
That’s not the question, though. The actual one sounds as if it should be a simple to answer, but is it?
While all genuine artisan bread is Real Bread, not all Real Bread is artisan bread. A child or even a machine can make Real Bread, but it’s only artisan bread if it was made by an artisan baker. This is where things get tricky: what constitutes an artisan baker?
The OED defines an artisan as ‘a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.’ Great, but how skilled is skilled and how is it known when a baker reaches that level of skill? Is it simply a question of counting hours of training, on-the-job experience or both? But then, one baker with little to no formal training may become highly skilled and knowledgeable in a relatively short period, while an old lag with qualifications coming out of their ears might forever loaf about as a decidedly average baker. Perhaps it would be useful to look beyond the UK for inspiration.
The Bread Bakers’ Guild of America’s website states: ‘Artisan Bakers utilize knowledge of traditional methodologies, a mastery of hand skills, and an appreciation for the best quality raw materials and ingredients, to produce baked goods that meet the highest possible standards of taste, appearance, aroma and texture.’
The Artisan Bakers Association (ABA) in Australia, meanwhile, has a three category bread classification. The most exacting of these (holistic artisan) requires the use of organic flour (which must be stoneground for two out of its three subcategories), sourdough leavening, sea salt, and have a minimum of 80% content from the country of origin. Furthermore, holistic artisan products may not be made using hydrogenated fat containing synthetic trans fats, industrially formulated ‘improvers’, flour treatment agents, or other artificial additives or processing aids.
Back in the northern hemisphere, the Food Standards Authority of Ireland’s (FSAI) artisan food guidance outlines that:
The food is made in limited quantities (less than 1000kg or litres per week) by skilled craftspeople.
The method of processing is not fully mechanised and follows a traditional approach involving a proven usage for at least 30 years.
The food is made in a micro enterprise (0 to 9 employees) at a single location.
The characteristic ingredients used are grown or produced locally where seasonally available and practical.
Each has its merits but I don’t feel any really nail it. Interestingly, ABA’s compositional classification doesn’t say anything about the producer: in theory, a loaf that meets any of their standards could be made by machine, for example.
And is it fair to say, as the FSAI suggests, that a woodfired bakery that produces stoneground, wholemeal, sourdough Real Bread but employs ten genuine, artisan bakers, uses imported flour or sells 1001 1kg loaves a week couldn’t call them artisan bread? Perversely, their guidance fails to expressly exclude the use of artificial additives (surely a crutch no true artisan needs) and relies on other terms (including ‘traditional’, ‘skilled’, ‘craftspeople’ and ‘locally’) from the worm can of words without legal definition.
So, what definition of artisan bread should the Campaign call to be put on the statute books? It’s perhaps easier to say what it isn’t. Artisan bread is not a trend or a look, and certainly not made using corner-cutting artificial additives in lieu of proving time or enhanced baking skills and knowledge. That’s not the question, though, so here’s a first attempt:
Artisan bread is that made by an artisan Real Bread baker. An artisan Real Bread baker is someone who bakes without the use of any artificial additives or processing aids (as defined in food law), performing all key stages of the process by hand. To allow sufficient time to build up his or her craft baking knowledge, skills and judgement to an artisan level, he or she has at least five years’ experience in baking this bread for sale.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 29, October 2016
Published 16 Feb 2021
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