We hear it all the time. Artisan beer, artisan salami, artisan bread and artisan cheese. But what does it really mean? Dictionaries define artisan as a noun to describe skilled craftspeople who use their hands to make things. Before the industrial revolution, almost everything was artisan. The industrial revolution not only changed the way we manufactured everyday objects like crockery, couches, towels, clothes, shoes and pots but also the way we manufactured food. The concern about losing the traditional skills used to bake bread, brew beer, preserve meat and make cheese gathered momentum in the self-sustaining fever of the 70’s. Since then more and more people have committed to learning and mastering traditional food production skills.
Today, artisan food has come to mean high quality ingredients and traditional, non-mechanised methods of production. While we generally associate artisan with small scale producers making things by hand, this is not always the case. In the cheese world, artisan cheese can mean that the whole production process including, stirring the curds, ladling the curds into hoops, turning hoops and rubbing cheese is all done by hand. While this is a reality for many small producers such as Little White Goat Cheese in Wamuran, not all artisan cheese is made by hand. Artisan is fashionable. In marketing hyperbole it can simply mean that the cheese was turned by hand during maturation while the entire production was mechanised.
To me artisan cheese means more than production by hand or machine. It is more about the skill of the cheesemaker. The way they have mastered their craft, work with the milk, understand their environment and respect the seasonal differences to create unique cheeses. Another way of describing it is real cheese. Cheese made from real milk by real people. Most importantly cheese that tastes good, like real food.
A subset of artisan cheese is farmstead cheese. Cheese that is made on the same farm that produces the milk. While farmstead cheese adds pasture management, animal husbandry and milking to the long list of cheese making jobs, it gives the cheesemaker more control about the volumes and quality of the milk. This can create exceptional cheese that reflects the place it is made. In Australia we have many farmstead cheeses, a local example is Frolicking Goat.
Artisan and farmstead cheese, real cheese, gives you, the cheese eater, a paddock to plate connection. It gives you a chance to eat quality ingredients produced with skill that reflects the place that it is made. It also helps keep the 11,000 years of cheese making tradition alive.