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Artisanal Wine and Foods: Hand-Crafting For Quality and Pleasure

Originally Posted: September 10, 2004

Christopher Tracy

The finest versions of human products have always been made by artisans. An artisan is a skilled worker who makes things by hand. The human attention to detail in handcrafted products always separates them on a quality basis from mass-produced items. The artisan can make shirts, cheese, salt, shoes, wine and a long list of products. Human beings and their habitats are different and unique, so the products they hand-make are by definition also different and unique. They are characteristic of the local materials, culture, imagination and skill of the artisan.

Throughout the developed world, the mechanization of production and centralization of ownership have led to a homogenization of style and character of human products from foods to housing. Uniqueness is hard to find in a world dominated by McDonalds, Gallo and Kraft where absolute uniformity is considered essential to consumer satisfaction. However, certain specific, characteristic foods have resisted this move toward uniformity or have seen resurgences in demand for the unique, bold, flavorful versions that can only be made with the highest quality raw materials and a keen attention to detail during production and aging. In other words, by hand. Three classic examples of the hand-made, artisanal product becoming commercial and then artisanal again are salt, cheese and wine.

Salt

For more than 7,000 years, salt has been the key to stable food supplies through its role as a food preservative. Salted meats, fish, cheeses and vegetables have allowed us to save fresh foods for later reconstitution or direct eating. Its value was so great it pre-dated gold as the foundation of many currencies. It has financed wars and was the most widely taxed commodity.

Prior to 100 years ago, most salt was produced and harvested by regional salt makers from the waters of salty back bays or underground salt sources. Most salts carried the color of the local impurities, producing a gray, blue, pink or brown cast and were the products of natural or artificial heat evaporation. Pure white salt was not the norm and graced the table of only the wealthiest families. Salt crystals varied greatly in size depending on the source and techniques used to crystallize out the salt and were used primarily for food preservation rather than flavoring, as it is today. By the turn of the 20th century and the advent of large mechanical evaporators and international corporate capitalism, salt manufacture was consolidated into fewer hands and uniformity became paramount.

Whiteness, a sign of freedom from contamination and its highly ground small crystal uniformity prevailed. Artisanal salt makers and their large-crystalled, colored salts faded away, and many of the historic salt making sites were abandoned. Paludiers, who with paddles, helped the crystallization process in sluiced back bay evaporation ponds, lost their jobs. Today, they are back with a vengeance. Salts from all over the world in every style, shape and color, made in traditional methods are readily available.

Cheese

Prior to mass production, a cheese-maker created cheese from local milk produced by shepherds or dairy farmers. These cheeses were unique to the place they were made because of the grasses and feeds eaten by the milk-producing animals as well as the style of cheese making that had evolved in the region. When these traditional cheeses are machine-made and mass-produced they are often stripped of their character, aromatically and texturally.

A good example is the difference between water buffalo Mozzarella from southern Italy and the ubiquitous American cow's milk "pizza-cheese" called Mozzarella. The hand-made, artisanal buffalo Mozzarella is moist, sweet and tender with a characteristic springy but firm texture. In contrast, the American version is rubbery and flavorless. The hand pulling of the buffalo Mozzarella curd is a delicate process whereby the experienced cheesemaker achieves the proper consistency in 15-30 minutes. Timing is everything and the cheesemaker senses when the process is complete. If he waits too long, the curd mass releases to much butterfat and the finished product loses its texture and flavor. This is why the machine-made pizza cheese is tasteless.

The love, care and attention to detail are where the essential character of the cheese comes from. It can only be achieved by the use of fine milks and the experienced hand of an artisanal cheesemaker. The same evolution can be seen in the cheddar cheeses in America. Once they were farmhouse-aged, piquant cheeses; they gradually became the mass-produced, rubbery supermarket brands, and they have now re-emerged as handcrafted, farmhouse cheeses.

Wine

Wine has always been made by hand--from planting and pruning vines to picking and crushing grapes. The very best wines were made by the selections of the best sites and grapes, as well as the gentle handling of the wine. However, in the US by the mid-1960s, the wine industry had suffered through prohibition and subsequent industrialization in California and New York, leaving us with mass-produced wine of mediocre quality masquerading as Burgundy, Chablis, Claret and Champagne.

The US quality wine "revolution" began in California in the late 1960s and in Washington, Oregon and New York in the early 1970s, with the creation of quality-oriented small wine companies. We have now come full circle with the best producers making profound wines using the best sites, grapes, natural yeast, slow fermentations, gravity handling and minimal filtration.

At Channing Daughters Winery we make wine the old-fashioned way-by hand. It is hard work to handpick our fruit, but it makes all the difference. We "punch down" our fermenting red grapes by hand and feet. We allow gravity rather than pumps to feed the wine into our bottles. The creation of our wine is not a laboratory-based scientific process, it is the art and craft of hedonistic evaluation that guides our winemakers' decisions as they sculpt the wine.

So as we savor the wines, cheeses, salts and many other products that show specific local character, we share in the work of the skilled artisans working today. It is comforting that we preserve today what we once knew so well. Our head and hands create the higher, lasting quality foods that visit us in our dreams.




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