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Artisan this, artisan that

It used to mean a skilled worker, more craftsman than artist. Now it is applied to bread, and even lettuce

Anthony Gardner | July/August 2014

City centres are getting bigger, as well as pricier. Queen’s Park, in north-west London, used to be almost a suburb, sedate and seldom talked about. Now it is verging on the metropolitan. The corner shops have been joined by swanky estate agents and Wi-Fi cafés, and we even have our own literary festival. But nothing has confirmed our upward mobility, our Shoreditch-ification, quite so emphatically as the opening of an artisan bakery.

Until I saw it over a window full of sourdough loaves, I had only heard “artisan” applied as an adjective to cramped 19th-century houses. What this new usage signified was unclear, though the prices£2.90 (€3.57) upwards for a loafsuggested it might be shorthand for “twice as expensive as everywhere else”.

In the months that followed, I came to realise that the bakery was merely the tip of the Campaillette-flour baguette. “Artisan”, or its more proper sister “artisanal”, just kept popping up, like the “artisanal toast” recently found by a correspondent for Pacific Standard magazine in a Californian “toast bar”.

The word mostly applies to food: among the more surprising examples are artisan lettuce and an artisan pizzafrom Domino’s. But it now stretches to every­thing from gift wrapping to bed-and-breakfasts. Georgia, in America, even trumpets a 22-mile “artisan corridor”, incorporating shops, galleries and Art Millican junior’s Sleepy Hollow, “a fairyland of fanciful gardens and dwellings where hobbits, gnomes and gremlins seem right at home”. And although artisan mania had taken root most dramatically in America, Britain is starting to catch up: on the last day of 2013 the Times had a prediction from a “food futurologist” about something that was going to become “the non-alcoholic drink of choice, on hedgerow flavours with an artisan twist”. This was vinegar.

How, then, did “artisan” become the pretentious foodie’s adjective of choice?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it first as a noun, “a worker in a skilled trade or craftsperson”. It was originally a French word, appearing in the early 15th century; the first recorded English use came in the 1530s, when the political theorist Thomas Starkey wrote of “Few artysanys of gud occupatyon” in his book “A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset”.

Almost from the beginning, the term raised questions about how much status it conferred and the distinction between a craftsman and an artist. Its Latin forerunner, the verb artire, means “to instruct in the arts”, and some of the earliest examples of “artisan” refer to painting. But, for the 17th-century lexicographer Randle Cotgrave, there was a clear pecking order: “The Germans”, he wrote dismissively, “…are better Artisans than Artists, better at handy-crafts than at head-craft.” Typical artisans’ occupations included carpentry, weaving, pottery and shoemaking.

The OED notes that “artisan” was “often taken as typifying a social class intermediate between property owners and wage labourers”so for a workman hoping to make good, it must have been a desirable label. A prime example of its aspirational qualities was the founding of the Dublin Artisans’ Dwelling Company in 1876: part of a movement to replace slums with modern, affordable housing, the company’s name was an unequivocal assurance to working-class tenants that they were on their way up. Nearly fifty years later Le Corbusier included plans for “mass-production artisans’ dwellings” in his visionary book “Towards a New Architecture”, while Hansard records a telling exchange in the House of Commons in 1929:

MR MONTAGUE I take it that an artisan dwelling is not necessarily a cheap dwelling?
SIR K. WOOD No, Sir; I think the authorities at Nottingham would very strongly resent that description.

It was while researching the American view of the word that I made a chastening discovery. In his book “The New York City Artisan”, Professor Howard B. Rock writes of trades ranging from goldsmithing and cabinet-making “to the hard chores of blacksmithing and the demanding routines of baking and butchering”. It seemed I had been too quick to jeer at our expensive local breadmaker.

Shamefaced, I asked the owner, Tom Molnar, why he had called his business Gail’s Artisan Bakery. “It’s about making things with a high degree of skilled labour,” he told me in an e-mail. “Hands are gentler on the delicate structure of dough than industrial methods, and artisan bakers can adjust to varying natural processes, such as sourdough cultures. You wouldn’t want everything to be made in an artisan wayphones and aeroplanes benefit from minimising human input from the manufacturing process; but with food the outcome tends to be healthier and tastier.”

Many other users of the word seem motivated less by high ideals than by the desire to jump on a lucrative bandwagon: as the author of the Eat Cheap, Eat Well food blog has noted, “‘artisan’…is to this century what ‘gourmet’ was to the 1970s and likewise is indis­criminately applied to everything from mass-produced bread to gummy Costco cheeses”. According to Sara Hawker, a senior lexicographer on the OED, it is used “to make things sound better than home-made, conferring an extra sense of status and authenticity”.

The foodies’ appropriation of the word seems to have come at the turn of the millennium. The earliest example cited by the OED comes from “World Food: Spain”, published by Lonely Planet in 2000 (“The shop contains a fine selection of…artisan breads in knots, bows and rounds”). For Hawker, its rise may be linked to food scares and “people’s desire to believe that their food is wholesome and ethical”. So “artisan” is to processing what “organic” is to growing.

The cleverness of the word is that it manages to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand it is reassuringly down-to-earth; on the other, aspirationally luxurious. The downside is that you are paying a premium for something that could have been made 500 years ago by someone wearing a funny hat, working by candlelight in a clay-and-wattle hut.

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