Artisan baking in Australia is difficult to define as an industry. For starters, it has been hard to put your finger on exactly what artisan baking is. One baker’s Artisan is another baker’s Dog’s Breakfast.
An artisan is simply someone who is motivated to make a well crafted product, and has the skills to make it so. A majority of bakers would (hopefully) claim to be enthusiastic and maintain high standards of production.
What distinguishes an artisan is that they will actively pursue a deeper knowledge and connection with their craft. It is only possible to make a “well crafted” product if you know what the craft is in the first place.
For instance, fermentation is a key skill of the baking craft. Therefore a baker seeking fermentation knowledge is considered to be expanding their artisan skills.
Modern synthetic process controls reduce the need to practice traditional artisan skills. This is not to say that the technicians who manufacture “bread improver” are not artisans of their own food technology craft. It is gorgeously ironic that one artisan’s craft can grow at the expense of another’s.
Even within the artisan baking community, technology and tradition are hot topics. For instance, a large proportion of bread artisans do not use commercial additives of any kind, including commercial yeast, agricultural residues gluten and/or vitamin C.
Other bakers consider these to be ‘soft additives’ that are necessary to stabilise the dough and provide consistent handling and finishing characteristics. Bakeries that use commercial additives can diversify their market, offering a wider range of goods than traditional artisan bakers.
A problem is that consumers are generally unaware at the time of purchase whether or not the process is ‘traditional artisan’ or contains elements of commercial process. Some bakeries aim to produce both styles; however the distinction between artisan processes is usually not promoted at point of purchase.
This can place customers and bakers in awkward situations as they become confused comparing goods from ‘artisan bakers’. The differences are no longer just a comparison of the baker’s art, but also the art of food technologists and whoever made the commercial additives.
A growing number of bakeries are prepared to distinguish the characteristics of their artisan process, such as by gaining ABA Accreditation. These bakeries are aware that bread eaters come in several flavours and require a number of clearly identifiable bread choices.
One guiding characteristic of the artisan consumer is a thirst for high quality information about the products they purchase. With such fussy clients, bakers are able to benefit from customers being excited about giving feedback. Artisan bakers are genuinely interested in the wellbeing of the people they bake for.
In essence, the dialogue between baker and bread eater is what determines the standard for artisan bread. The standard is not set by industry, the media or the next big award event for bakers. It is set by the baker’s love of their craft and a desire to meaningfully interact with the people they are baking for.
Get involved and talk openly about artisan process. Baking forums, such as Sourdough Companion, are a good place to start. This is also the place to display your work, exchange ideas and beg for criticism. It is time to get excited about the potential of ourselves and our craft.