One of the most bandied about food words at the moment is “artisan”. Never was it used as much as in the Food NI tent at the Balmoral Show last week. The definition in the Oxford dictionary, in a food and drink context, is “made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high quality ingredients”.
Claire Kelly and Margaret Cooper are preserve makers who showcased their produce at the show. They often compare fruit acid callouses like a badge of honour and speak of hours paring or chopping fruit. Would introducing an electric rinder or food processor make their finished product any less artisan? Of course not and in a burgeoning market they need to make more to fulfil customer demand.
Will and Alison Abernethy started churning butter a few years ago using a hand operated churn. Now because of the popularity of their butter (Prince Charles especially loved their dulse variety, and Claire’s preserves, on a recent showcase of Northern Ireland products at Fortnum and Mason in London) they have had to mechanise the churn in order to keep up with out put. It tastes exactly the same, but Will’s arm muscles are not quite as taut now as they once were...
Importing ready made products and slapping on a label does not an artisan make. Likewise getting someone else to do the donkey work while you label it as your own, in all honesty, doesn’t make you a bona fide producer. The exception for me is when you get your bees to do all the work in their honeymaking – you deserve to take the credit for all the nurturing!
One of my pet hates is when you see a pizza box in a supermarket labelled “wood fired Italian artisan pizza”. On closer inspection, the reality is it has been made in a factory in Holland, never seen a wood fired oven and is merely a marketeer’s ploy to instil some credibility in something that’s less nutritious than the packaging it comes in!
It will never have seen properly milled flour, single estate oil, a real tomato or a beautifully crafted cheese anywhere along its production.
It’s time to cut this word from our culinary vocabulary as it has become one of those nonsense phrases like “blue sky thinking” or “the likes of”.
The people making real jam, charcuterie, breads, pickles, butter and cheeses are just like that themselves – real! No artificiality, additives or hot air.
My first recipe is for rump of lamb cooked with Abernethy dulse butter. This might seem strange but it goes along the same principle as seasoning a leg of lamb with anchovies – it doesn’t affect the taste, just adds unami flavour to the dish. Cauliflower roasted with hazelnuts is a great textured side for this dish. I’ll be cooking this dish with Mourne lamb in Dromara on June 6 in Second Dromara Church Hall if you want to try it without having to cook it.
My other recipe is for a honey cake – source a local honey where you can taste the origin and nearly sense the floral notes. I was gifted a beautiful jar at Balmoral by the Ulster Beekeepers and will cherish it and only use it to anoint nice cakes or on good homemade bread and butter.
In this our Year of Food and Drink in Northern Ireland its time to celebrate our brilliant, real produce!