Artisan Bread: What Is It and Why Bother About It? A Conversation With Don Sadowsky and Eli Colvin

"Artisan Bread" Mix

There are few things I like even more than making bread and one of them is talking about bread. So when my bread pal Don Sadowsky started one of his mind challenging –and insanely interesting– discussions around my favorite topic, bread, I was totally captured. The discussion revolved around threats to artisan bakers from supermarket bread labeled as artisan, so we decided to bring into the discussion a professional bread baker and not just anyone but Eli Colvin, the head baker of the acclaimed Model bakery and the initiator of the rEVOLUTION Bread project.

Eli Colvin

We asked ourselves, what does artisan mean and why did it suddenly become so relevant to some of us? The first time the term artisan is known to have appeared in the English language in the 16th century was referred to a “Few artysanys of gud occupation”, in other words, to a class of skilled manual workers such as carpenters, weavers, pottery and shoe makers. “It’s about making things with a high degree of skilled labour” says the owner of Gail’s Artisan Bakery, UK [source: Brett Ryder, An Artisan Article, Intelligent Life magazine July/August 2014].
Considering the origins of the term artisan, we can conclude that an artisan product is to be made by a skilled manual worker. And what is so fancy about that? Why is it suddenly so incredibly relevant that a food item like -just a random example- a loaf of bread is made by a person, and not by any person but an artisan, i.e. a person initiated to the craft of bread making?

Probably the contemporary appeal of the term artisan applied to food in general, and bread in particular, is because food in general, and bread in particular, are increasingly made by machines rather than skilled artisans. So it is a little revolution, as Eli says, to buy that loaf of bread that does not come out of a factory but out of the hands of a real baker. And following Pollan way of thinking (Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked” is full of insights), it means giving ourselves more decisional power, because the independent baker made a loaf according to his knowledge and liking rather than following standardized factory procedures. By supporting that baker we are clearly standing for independence and for a closer connection to the production of our food.
Too bad, industrial food is already extending grasping hands towards the term artisan, especially in relation to bread. And so our discussion with Eli began…

Don: Artisan bread has a cachet that is well deserved, and lots of big boys want in on it. Should we care that a lot of factory bread has the label “Artisan”? “Natural”, “Gourmet” and similar designations have been so debased that they mean nothing (if they ever had any real meaning), though people may react subliminally. Same thing with artisan?
Eli: Yes artisan has clearly been used as a marketing ploy.
Don: Are the people who shop at grocery store “tanning salons” people who might otherwise shop at an independent bakery, or are they merely moving from the prepackaged bread aisle to the “artisan” aisle? I read over and over again about the decline of small bakeries, but I don’t know if it’s just that people won’t spend the money for handmade bread period, regardless of what kind of bread they find in the supermarkets.

[The Real Bread Campaign in Britain has a name for supermarkets that buy parbaked breads and finish them in the store: Tanning Salons]

Barbara: I think many of the tanning salons buyers are some the former pre-packaged bread buyers but this attempt they are making to move to a healthier, less processed loaf of bread could be instead directed to real artisan bread.
Eli: I’m not sure how well it works these days. When I see “artisan” bread at supermarkets it’s usually baked in-store with pre-packaged ingredients. Here in the North Bay California small bakeries are doing well, but it’s still a convince factor. I’m not sure people believe that it’s actually made by a “baker”. I’ve taken steps in my community to explain what “real” bread is. That how rEVOLUTION Bread began, as more of a soapbox.
Don: What kind of steps, Eli, and with what results?
Eli: I do a farm market. It’s a good place to be able to interact with people. I have tons of people that stop and look, I offer a taste and get “no thanks, I don’t eat gluten. But it looks amazing” that’s when I investigate and explain what it is I do compared to the bread in the supermarkets that’s making them ill.

Barbara: Eli do your customers think your -true artisan- bread is pricey?
Eli: People don’t seem to be too concerned with the cost. I’m in a progressive food area so most people already get it. People are always amazed and fascinated when I explain how I make it.
Don: Eli, it sounds like you aren’t competing with factory breads, at least economically.
Eli: Well not really.
Don: But, as Barbara noted, there’s another kind of competition, one for the healthy eating habits of everyone. And Eli you’re being hit from two sides: fake healthy breads and misguided (for most) concerns about health.
Eli: Factory bread is giving all bread a bad name. That’s more of what I deal with. Anti-gluten, anti-wheat.

Don: Would the anti-gluten movement have any less impetus if factory breads weren’t marketed as artisan, or is it really an unrelated problem?
Barbara: I think they are closely related Don. Eli, are people where you live and work not used to the idea of largely hand-made bread?
Eli: It’s weird to me. California is food fad capital. After explaining what I do and the grains I use some people are willing to believe me and give it a try. I’ve yet to have anybody that claimed bread made them sick have the same reaction with my bread. I think, here at least, people are leery over what a mass marked corpo food company puts on the label. I think gluten free is the new “artisan” or all natural.
Don: There is a war (or two wars) for the hearts and minds of those who would eat healthy bread, and it seems like that war is not going so well. There’s a lot of money invested in shading the truth.
Eli: That’s how mega food works. Most of us get that. Look for example at eggs. Farm fresh, right. Same trickery. I think people understand the difference between mega bread compared to real bread. The problem is the assumption that all bread will make them sick. People are always look for the one cause. That’s one of my debating points. It’s all industrial food. It’s how we’ve treated our environment, including the use of antibiotics and sterilizing everything.
Barbara: To me there are two main factors that have contributed to the rise of gluten/wheat intolerance: lack of proper fermentation/cooking of the grains and modified grains. It seems like the less health concerned and more taste concerned section of consumers is being fed by the fake artisan bread, while the more health-conscious one is quickly getting swallowed by the gluten-free industry.

Barbara: Eli, we were trying to think to a working definition of “artisan bread” which would not easily be stolen by industry. What would you put into such a definition?
Eli: That’s a tricky one and not easily put on a bread bag. For me, I interact with as many people as I can. Explain the long slow hard work that goes into making “real” bread.
Barbara: there should be a way to specify in the definition that the true artisan bread should be largely hand-made, shouldn’t it? For instance, how much do you use machines in your baking and what is the average fermenting time of one of your loaves?
Eli: I agree, and I’m not alone. Craig Ponsford (my friend and former boss) has been a loud voice and has made some waves. In fact a NY Times article came out today that I posted on my bread page.

[Contrary to popular understanding, most whole grain flour is created by separating the wheat components into refined flour, germ and bran, which are later mixed together far from the mill. Bakers such as Craig Ponsford are using locally grown and freshly milled flour.]

Don: A number of good bakeries are now designed so that the customer can see the bakers at work.
Barbara: Baking like circus.
Eli: I’m currently in a fishbowl bakery while I get revolution off the ground.
Don: I look at bread more critically, but really value quality when I see it.
Eli: First of all, finding bakers is tough and expensive. So normally I hire people with interest and no real practical experience. The human factor is the hardest part of real baking. It’s hard normally thankless work. You need to work as a unified front. That can take its toll. As a lead baker it’s my job to execute a vision and navigate. I also have to please the owners, customers, accounts, chefs, make the bakery money etc.
Barbara: I have heard several home bakers proudly stating they will never buy bread again. We can’t leave the craft to industry -and to a few home bakers.
Eli: as far as real bread goes, no. It can’t have a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients. And yes it needs at least 3 hours of bulk fermentation time on yeasted breads (for me that’s still cheating). As far machines go. That’s tough. I hate them but use them more at the Model bakery these days. I have to, it was a calculated decision. Demand increased and I have to make the bosses happy. Dough divider (I only use for 1000+ baguettes each day) A baguette roller. Because we just had way too many ordered each day. Timing is critical. But that’s nothing compared to industrial bread. From premixed bag of crap to final loaf is maybe 2 hours. All with the push of a button. But that’s me being a purist as far as Model goes.
Don: Eli do you think a definition of artisan breadmaking would be helpful?
Eli: I’m not sure. Here it seems that term has lost all meaning.
Don: Would it matter if it were another term? Or is terminology just not pertinent?
Eli: Some sort of regulation would be nice, but that will never happen. The food industry has a lot of power in Washington.
Don: It would have to be done privately.
Barbara: in Australia there is an Artisan Baker Association. Members can show the label as a guarantee.
Barbara: No government involved.

[Australia’s Artisan Baker Association created their own standards for what constitutes artisan bread.]

Barbara: I was thinking of an independent artisan bakers association, an international one. One of the main aims would be education.
Eli: A sort of real bread underground rebellion world wide association ? I like it.
Barbara: You can call it that.
Don: Maybe not so underground, but definitely grassroots.
Barbara: they have done something around these lines also in England, the “Real Bread Campaign”.
Don: There are a lot of folks out there who would be interested in joining a movement even if they weren’t interested in an organized association. It could bring in professionals and nonprofessionals alike. It could appeal to anti-corporate folks, people who value tradition, and many others. In the internet world, these things can move extremely quickly.
Barbara: The movement already exists it would be nice to have it a tiny bit more organized and accessible to more people.
Don: Independent but united, the guild concept.
Barbara: I think there should be more unity in the independence.
Eli: Lots of small farmers were consolidated. I agree with the unity.
Don: It’s a real art to bring together disparate groups and have them concentrate on what unites them. But on the internet groupthink can sometimes be an asset in this area.
Barbara: as an independent baker what is the extent of automation you would like and you think could be feasible?
Eli: I personally only use clean small farmed grains, grown in California when accessible. I only use a mixer to incorporate water and flour. The rest I do by hand. Long slow (30+ hrs) fermentation.
Barbara: Why do you think reducing automation to a minimum and long fermentation are important Eli?
Eli: It involves a human. Bread is edible art.
Barbara: Agree 100%. Bread is edible art, you can’t have mass produced art.
Don: I wouldn’t want bread making to become like museum-quality art, where only the wealthy can afford it.
Barbara: Don, people spend a lot on money on so many things maybe they can understand bread is as valuable as other items?
Don: It can be seen this way, and possibly that is part of the education needed.

As you probably suspected from the beginning, we did not eliminate the threats to artisan bakers in one go-round, much though we would have liked to. But we did refine the problem (no pun intended) in our own minds and identified avenues we want to pursue.

This discussion is of course part of a larger one happening worldwide. Artisan bakers such as Eli are introducing the rest of us to the joys and value of carefully crafted and long fermented bread. Advocacy groups such as the Real Bread Campaign are spreading the word. And home bakers everywhere are discussing the future of artisan bread and what role they should play in it.

What about you? Join the discussion here and tell us you think, in the Comments section.

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Comments

  1. I think the term “artisan bread” should be replaced by “real bread”. It makes much more sense, given that the industry has stolen the original name, and that’s what it is, really, real bread.

    • Don Sadowsky says:

      Any term can be co-opted. “Real” does imply the idea of fakery, while”artisan” communicates how the bread is made. Either way, activism is necessary to counter corporate newspeak.

  2. Nice term: “tanning salon”. Several of them sprung up in my old neighborhood in Hamburg, since I moved to Maine.
    I think one problem is that people really don’t know that these so called bake shops are not real bakeries, because they look exactly like them, and the breads are not so noticeable different for non-experts, either. Even I was fooled – until I tasted the breads.

  3. Tanning Salons…priceless! I only make my own bread, LONG slow rise but not 30+ hours, only all day, a 4 lb loaf. Tuesday is BREAD baking day for me and I look foreward to it. Doing an extra bake this week, a light Rye. Great post, thank you.

  4. Frank Tokarchik says:

    Very interesting discussion. I have been baking bread for myself, family and friends for a long time. I use overnight fermenting and a long final rise. No machine here although my love of this started when I bought a bread machine 20 years ago. I always finished those loaves in the oven getting much better results. After that stopped working I started thinking that bread was being made for centuries without the help of machines. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on about bread. It’s always interesting to get feedback. Some folks say they never had bread so good. This fall I am going to run a small class on technique and about 8 of my friends have expressed interest. Creating a loaf of bread made with your hands and having people enjoy has brought me great pleasure. I enjoy doing this so much.

  5. Great post! I love the discussion!

    I’ve started using the word craft more and more as I think it hasn’t (yet?) been taken over by the industry and as a word, it also includes the idea of a craftsman or -woman carefully making the bread.

    As I was reading through your discussion, I was also playing with the word hand-made, but Eli’s remarks about using some machines where he must make so much sense that this word doesn’t quite fit…

    It’s interesting to see how there are movements like this around the world (The Real Bread Campaign in the UK, Die Bäcker in Germany, the Artisan Bakers’ Association in Australia). What’s missing is taking them all together and turning it all into a truly global movement.

    The Real Bread Campaign does accept members from around the world (I heard that I am the one and only member in Finland :) ) but even that’s probably not going to do the trick…

    Anyway, great discussion. I believe we’ll make it. It takes time, but people (probably not all of them, but more than today) will learn the difference between factory bread and real craft bread made by real people.

    • Don Sadowsky says:

      A question I have, Jarkko, is how do people learn about real bread? They can talk directly to bakers like you or Eli, but few will have that opportunity. They may, just by chance, run into the Real Bread Campaign or web posts like this one. They may happen to know someone who bakes their own bread who can both explain the craft and provide a real life example of how much better a slow-risen and carefully baked bread can be. But all of these are painstakingly slow, while in the meantime tons of money is being poured into advertising and bakery facades to fool people into believing they’re buying the real thing. How do we get the public to pay attention to the quality of their bread in a world full of political upheaval and threats to health, safety and the environment?

      • That’s a very good question, Don! And you’re definitely right: while we may reach some people through blog posts like this, Facebook, or even my magazine, most people won’t care enough about bread to look them up or click on the links as they appear on their Facebook feeds.

        Because of this, it can really feel like we are losing the battle, but I still feel somehow optimistic. This is a war that has to be fought by the bakers (with the help of home bakers and bread lovers such as us, of course): As more bakers realize the power in making a great product by hand — the pride that comes from doing it, the connections, etc; things that you don’t get when working at a factory bakery — they will spread the word and people will learn. Slowly. Painfully slowly.

        But at the same time, we can already enjoy the fruits of the movement and enjoy great bread with friends. Even if everyone doesn’t join us in the fight. :)

    • When I started baking European breads for our local natural food store, it took a while before people got used to them (presented in an open basket, whereas all the other breads are packaged).
      Meanwhile, I have my faithful “followers”, and my breads are usually sold out within a few hours. Very gratifying! When I started out, I heard from other bakers that “Americans won’t buy breads with a foreign name” – my customers do :)

  6. Hi All and sorry for the delay in answering-I was away and with a bad internet connection- and thank you Don for having followed the discussion also for me.

    @Monica: I agree with Don here, real does not say much on how the bread is made.
    @Karin: that is so sad that even in Germany, land of an old and rich baking tradition, parbaked bread is taking over. Cheers to you and your work to supply good bread to your community and cheers to your smart buyers, we need more of them!
    @Susan: thank you for reading and keep baking!
    @Frank: that is awesome that you are educating your community, to spread the world about how good bread tastes is much of we need
    @Jarkko: thank you so much for your contribution to the discussion. I was thinking of you, here and there, when working on this article. That piece you wrote about your African local bakery… much to think about when defyining “real” and “artisan” bread. I believe being extreme in criteria is not going to pay back. What we need is a definition that will protect little bakeries, run by real persons who make a bread they have control over, and are happy to sell to their community, from plain industrial bread. Bread made with already mixed ingredients, fake sourdough or fake anything should also be not included, no matter if it comes from a small bakery. “Real Craft Bread” could be an alternative to “Artisan” but we can think about it :)

    The discussion will continue soon with a follow-up of this article, stay tuned!!!

  7. Yes, I too believe with more and more education the better it will be for artisan (or craft as Jarkko says) bread and bakeries to get the customers they need to survive & thrive. I look forward to the discussion and your follow-up article. Thanks!

  8. Bread is edible art!

    On the one hand side I love that quote. On the other hand side I have to say that I actually sometimes have to wonder what the fuzz is about. I can be lucky having grown up in an era where “artisan bread” was the only thing available. Wood fired oven bread was a normal thing and of course the local bakery used sourdough to make em loafs. I remember the smell lingering in the air when I entered the local bakery shop, something that one has to experience to be able to miss in the end.
    Only recently, also in Germany, we had this artisan baker craft dying out and people started to buy those disgusting loafs of “so called bread” at Aldi and Lidl. I mean how could they? Who started this trend here and how in the hell did we get in this situation? Well clearly people were not willing to pay a premium for the good stuff. But again, should bread be an art or should it be something of a daily necessity? But then, I think that daily stuffs can be art to and should be art in my opinion. So I second that, bread should be declared art.

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