Artisan what?

Simply “google” the word “Artisan, and it will be revealed that the term is an anachronism…that is, it applies to skilled workers before the Industrial revolution. What will also be revealed is that the term is applied to everything from computer graphics/orthotics/switchboards/condominiums and furniture stores. It is clear that the term means as much as the other pirated words like “natural” even “organic”, that is, they are merely buzz words for the latest trend, and any intrinsic meaning they may have had is long lost. Such words are merely for selling a product and trying to get more money for it because, well, it sounds better and we can have good thoughts about it. The term no longer distinguishes an authentically made product, constructed by a craftsman/woman.

In a purely descriptive sense, that is without ego connotations, I was the first Artisan baker in modern Australia, and I have to think about what distinguished me from the other bakers, in order to get a grip on this “Artisan” revival.

When I started in 1979 in Melbourne, with the woodfired ovens at the now defunct Feedwell foundry, I was clearly part of what is called, the food “underground”. Now its very interesting that term, because we were reacting to, and offering an alternative to the corporate food system, which we saw as exploitative, and which was ruining peoples health by selling them nutrient-less food , bread which was mostly gluten ( for which they have initiated a previously unknown sensitivity/allergy among the public), made by machines. That is, we had a definite political agenda, or a social agenda, which we pursued not by manning the barricades, but by offering high quality nutrient-dense food. It was based on ideology forsure, but also what is called “altruism”. That is we cared for the customers, and went to lengths to ensure our product was the best for them.

This also included a skill base. We went to great lengths to know what we were doing,and strove to improve our techniques . This is a part of the Artisan tradition .A pride in skill and a desire to produce the best product through knowledge and awareness. We barely survived financially, but that was hardly ever part of the agenda…..it was actually “food for people, not for profit”. Some of you will find that amusing, naïve and the other terms that cringers apply to such ideals.

What is most interesting though, is that this mentality enabled the birth of the Artisan movement. Because people vote with their feet. My tasty sourdoughs were celebrated in Melbourne, not for any trendy reason, but because they were good simple honest breads, baked and prepared with a lot of care, and were a viable alternative to the franky poisonous breads that were on sale everywhere. As my customers continually related to me, they loved my breads, because their bloated tummies and gut aches went away. I used to get in trouble for taking a holiday (rarely) because they all told me their gut aches etc, came back when they went to other bakeries, even the “sourdough” ones.

At that time I remember reading an article (or a few really) from within the bakery industry about how bread sales were continually falling, and what could be done about it. That was so funny because my sales were soaring, but they never included us in their surveys, because after all, I wasn’t a “real” baker…right!

You know the Industry never thought that the demise of sales might be because regular bread was really bad, and customer awareness was on the rise. The Industry never considered making good bread again, or instituting qualitative evaluations.

The “industry” is a hard to define body, but is largely characterised since WW2 by trade school graduates, or “ticketed” bakers, and the professionals, bureaucracy and corporations associated. The “industry” was largely taken over by corporate bodies and industrial-scale after WW2. This is a demarcation, as profit alone became the sole aim of bread manufacture, whereas previously, quality, defined by good ingredients and skilful processes had been the aim and guiding light of bakers. If this seems unbelievable, then read some of the baker’s journals and bakery literature of the preceding period. It is full of debates by tradesmen and women, proud of and assiduous about their practice.

It took a while for the industry to respond to the drop in sales of regular bread. The response wasn’t straight-forward, wasn’t based on self-evaluation, and was a bit underhanded. It’s important to keep in mind here that “the industry” used to be “the artisans”. They had to re-invent the “Artisan” model to suit themselves, and the industrial approach, and then launch it on the public in their own terms. That is with as much compromise as possible, and with no concern for the quality of the bread.(remember, bread was not tasted in bread shows, it was merely a technical artifact).

To the industry, “Artisan” bread is just a style, where in actual fact, artisan bread is the defining reality of bread…a yardstick by which quality is measured. A great example of what I mean by the underhandedness is that a lecturer from the renowned William Angliss College in Melbourne tried to steal some of my dough. I had generously allowed the graduating class to visit my bakery during production. This was an inconvenience, but I really wanted the students to see what we did. I gave them some dough for a textural evaluation. On leaving, the dough hadn’t been returned to me. When I requested its return, there was silence. It was only when I threatened to call the police, that the lecturer retrieved it from his pocket. Now, I would have been more than willing to go to the college, to teach/share, but this exemplified the industries approach…they had to try and make it their own, steal the whole thing in reality. Such a negative approach, the complete opposite to the spirit of what I was doing, and in my opinion to the true artisan mentality.

The curious reality today is that there are some very talented artisan bakers out there who like me are not graduates of a trade school. They actually form the largest body of artisan bakers, and they do it because they like it. But the industry has noticed, particularly that they get press, accolades, and a steady stream of customers. They provide bread to the classy modern Australian restaurants. Recently, a visiting English celebrity baker told me he thought he could get better bread in Melbourne than in Paris. This was from the non-industry artisan bakers.

Traditionally, a baker had to spend a lengthy apprenticeship with a master artisan before they could eventually become one themselves. My lengthy apprenticeship was spent with books, travelling and alone, continually experimenting. There was nobody to teach me, and all the trade schools taught was to make no-time dough’s with masses of yeast and improvers…or to push buttons. I was continually visited by bakers who had the spirit, but were frustrated because they had hardly touched dough at trade school. They knew what I was doing, and had been searching for that experience, and just loved it in my bakery. I was also visited by experienced bakers who were embarrassed because they couldn’t handle my critical dough’s. They had become so used to “safe” baking.

Now, “Artisan” is being taught at TAFE`s. This is essentially a good thing, but what worries me is that those teaching “Artisan”, aren’t artisans. Where did they learn to be artisans so they could teach it? And what are their criteria? Because the criteria was actually established by bakers like myself who have had no input into the systems being taught. It is a peculiar reality.

Consequently “Artisan” is just a style of bread, not a way of bread making. How can an artisan make anything but artisan bread? Do they change coats when then making conventional bread in their bakeries. An artisan bakery ONLY makes artisan bread; they do not then turn around and make a gluten/sugar/chemical filled loaf. Artisan is not a style of bread, it is a way of life, a way of thinking and a way of baking.

On another but related tack, what is also worrying is the growing and officially sanctioned tendency to put yeast in a sourdough. This is simply inauthentic. Sourdough is actually defined by the absence of saccharomyces cerevisiae (bakers yeast)….otherwise, what defines it? This is a recognised microbiological reality.

Some do it as an insurance policy. An artisan’s insurance is skill. I’ve never done it and there is no need to do it. It’s just plain wrong. If it is done, label the bread accordingly..it is a semi-sourdough, or a yeasted sourdough, not a sourdough, which is fine if honestly labeled. As a deception it just demonstrates poor technique and an inability to do the real thing.

It is also worrying that some use yeast in the same bakery where sourdough is made. Well I did this in the late 70`s before it became increasingly clear that the yeast continually infected the sourdough. And this is well established microbiologically also. So stop fooling yourselves! I just do not understand why this all has to go on. It’s so easy to make good sourdough. If you have customers that want “something lighter”, point them to the nearest yeast bakery.

The next worry is the use of “sour powders”. Give me a break. What a deception is this! They contain none of the polycultures known to form a sourdough, and are a cheap deception, simply put. I say it again, it is so easy to make good sourdough, why all this deception and smoke and mirrors…a real baker does not use “sour powders” and those pushing them should be run out of town. But they are powerful players in the industry game, and because of the really poor laws governing, basically, the truth, they will continue to push their gear. This is strictly forbidden in proper culinary cultures like France, where there are laws governing authenticity in food. The bottom line is that the customer is simply ripped off with a fake product, and the industry takes advantage of their ignorance.

In no way am I trying to sling off at anybody in the industry. Infact I have been heartened by such industry figures as Leon Bailey in Adelaide, whose input is genuine and worthwhile, and will serve to improve the standard of bread for consumers…. I just want to initiate a vigorous debate, because it is needed, and is what revivified the French bread industry. Leon lent me a work called “The first sixty years”, about the early baking industry in Australia. What I see in it is vigorous debate, which I haven’t heard for too long!

Just a word about the French bread industry. When faced with declining sales, they did an honest evaluation, and realised they were making bad bread. They had blindly accepted industrial rules( profit profit profit), and subsequently engaged in a raging debate about it for years, until those on the side of authenticity triumphed, and strict laws were enacted to prevent the sort of deception forced on customers in Australia. You simply cannot call yourself an “Artisan” there and make factory bread, or “handmade” factory bread. Besides, the savvy French consumers would laugh you out of town.

“Woteva” say the doubters among us. And today they are right, because “woteva” is the prevailing way to think. But there would be no such thing as “Artisan” if that was the prevailing mode of thought and discourse in the past.

John Downes


The Natural Tucker Bread Book
by John Downes
Hyland House Melb. 1983.

Consultation inquiries:
Artisan Baker Association (ABA)
Email. aba@artisanbaker.com.au
Web. www.artisanbaker.com.au


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