Friday, May 20, 2022

With Freshly Cut Hay

Expert fingers model a range of eatables from meats to cheeses using traditional methods and organic, local produce—artisanal foods are what gourmets are crowing about

With Freshly Cut Hay
With Freshly Cut Hay

It’s no coincidence that ‘art’ shares its etymological roots with ‘artifice’ and ‘artificial’—indeed, it’s how, through skill and imagination, that the mundane and the humdrum is raised to the realm of the special and the artistic. Though literature, painting, music and, with the easy access of digital technology, movies, too, can be made at home, it’s the art of cooking—dominated as much by star chefs as by kitchen wizards—that the common woman can aspire to master. And it’s the ongoing Covid-19 crisis that has provided a vigorous fillip to the whole endeavour. From DIY food kits to meal boxes by home chefs—the pandemic has been generous to the muse of cooking. Now, its small mercies extend to ‘artisanal foods’.

The term refers to foods made by hand, using traditional methods, involving preservation or fermentation—fruit, gra­ins, milk for cheese, meats, fish, oils and vinegars from farmers are all game for food artisans, who focus on locally produced farm foods. It is produced on a small scale. Such hygienically prepared and well-packaged food has also gained its popularity in India. Ask the aficionados how it feels to bite into a ‘bean to bar’ chocolate, where the entire process is done by one hand.

Like symphonies and sonatas played on period instruments, artisanal products use old methods and tools—traditional recipes with rich histories are ferreted out, where preservatives, colorants, sweeteners, thickeners and other chemicals are unknown entities. Local ingredients are sourced, for establishing provenance is a key aspect of such products. It is, in a way, harking back in time to an age before mass-produced goods.

Chef Rajesh Sharma, The Roseate, Delhi says, “About artisanal food, the first thing that occurs are bread, cheese or jams. It has much more to do with each community and their beliefs, food culture, traditions, festivals, geographical location that determines the seasons and what the land can bear.” Indian vot­aries of such foods—the good folk who abhor chemicals and other impurities—snap up breads, cheeses, fruit preserves, cured meats, cold cuts, beverages, oils, and vinegar made traditionally.

“The method of making a particular cheese will be very different in a village or community than in the factory; the end result may have very different qualities in terms of taste, aroma, texture and shelf life,” says Sharma. Importantly, artisanal products are seasonal, local and labour int­ensive. “In the food industry, it is our res­ponsibility to honour farmers and growers by utilising their products in a way that reflects local culture. To create artisan products we are using a vast variety of ingredients like a mix of flours, extra dry butter, artisan teas, gluten-free mixes, vanilla bean, prosciutto, vegan cheese, exotic vegetables and salad leaves, olive oil and balsamic,” adds Sharma. In its own farms, Roseate makes artisanal products like Ayurvedic churnas, chawanprash, sauerkraut, kefir yoghurt, beverages like kombucha and kanji, jams, marmalade, chutneys, nut butters, pickles, breads, dairy free milks and yoghurts and cheese.

Talking about how different they are from the regular products, Lincoln Bennet Rodrigues, founder of Artisan Deli, Bennet & Bernard Group, Goa, says, “Food products are prepared by seasoned restaurateurs who have had intense global food exposure. They are preferred by food connoisseurs—our premium cold-cuts are prized. Most products are gluten-free with no Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) or hormones….” Rodrigues explains how Artisan Deli has evolved from the need to produce processed meats that stand apart on flavour, quality of ingredients and presentation. He explains, “Our cold cuts— bacon, ham, sausages, Frankfurters, Mort­adella, concoctions like whiskey infused meats—meet international quality standards and are a healthy alternative to con­­sumers. We completely avoid all artificial colour or flavour.”

Naturally, made by experts who are such sticklers for purity, tradition and the avoidance of industrial age chemicals, artisanal meats are brimful of nutrients good for us, like quality protein and fat-soluble vitamins. They are also a source of calcium, can reverse hypertension by lowering blood pressure, provide essential healthy fat, help in building muscle and strengthen the immune system.  

Bharti Sanghi, founder, Life-Artisanal Food specialises in sweets and savoury snacks. “Regular sweets have common shapes like squares and rectangles, but artisanal products have different shapes and are inspired from natural things like shells and flowers. They also have exotic fillings from dry fruits to dried rose petals and other edible flowers,” she says.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted global standards for artisanal foods, and accelerated its demand in this all-consuming concern for health and hygiene. Hei­gh­tened consumer perceptions about food safety have also spiked demand. Rodrigues and Bharti are direct beneficiaries. AnnaMaya Andaz hotel in Delhi has been a pioneer in the philosophy of sustainable sourcing and mindful eating. At AnnaMaya, they have an exhaustive market list of artisan retail products culled from the best organic and seaso­nal ingredients. Some are grains from Ind­­­ian Original Table, cookies by Earth­sp­i­red & ZingZest, sugar and salt varieties by Artisan Palate, freeze-dried fruits by Furo, Pascati and Sayara chocolate bars, Café Jun­yali spices, Kumaoni and Himalayan Haat preserves, and Chai Veda artisanal tea.

Anum Ajani of AnnaMaya says, “We use organic vegetables and fruits, Himalayan salt, spices, cheese and preserves in our food. It has also become more important for people to know the provenance of their food and is a critical part of the mindful eating experience.” Even brunches there are conceptualised and promoted with the concept of ‘farm to table’. “It is a great way to create a better and sustainable environment and to see, smell and taste authentic local and regional specialities, to help our guests in their cooking at home,” adds Ajani. With AnnaMaya being a forerunner in celebrating artisans and seasonal sourcing as well as local ingredients, its menu is designed around selected, local ingredients.

Then there is the small matter of pricing. Artisanal produce does tend to be priced higher than mass-produced material. However, the benefits of knowing what exactly you are consuming, where it has come from, with the added guarantee that it is clean and pure far outweigh the higher price than you may pay. The trust that artisanal produce builds by being small-scale, locally and seasonally produced has made it popular during the pandemic.

In fact, a lot of artisans have shifted to a ‘business to consumer’ model from a ‘business to business’ model—enabling the consumer to buy directly from growers and makers. For example, for Darima Farms, an all-woman collective of producers specialising in cheese, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise, where demand for indigenous cheese shot up as cheese imports dwindled. “People are more conscious about their choice of food in the present scenario, which makes us more confident about the sustainability of our café, Roasted by Roseate”, adds Sharma.

With traditional, non-mechanised procedures, batches of artisanal products are smaller and production times slower, with focus on quality. Talking about artisanal cho­colates, Mohit Bhagchandani, founder of Copter7, says, “Our sustainably cultivated South Indian cacao is worthy of the spotlight amongst our artisanal chocolates. These plantations are nurtured with utmost care. Copter7 chocolates are bean-to-bar, crafted by chocolatier and chef David Belo, where slipping up at any point is inexcusable.”

Jaydeep Mukherjee, brand head, Smoke House Deli, says, “We use fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, sourced from farms we have known over years, for our extensive restaurant menus as well as our home-made jams and preserves. A huge selection of such ingredients, ranging from oils, cheese, meats, grains and legumes, seasonings and spices are responsibly sourced. Our cooking techniques are simple and scientific and ensure delicious and irresistible food that not only looks and tastes good but is also healthier.” Mukherjee explains that at their end­eavour is to cook with better and healthier ingredients. “We keep our costs in check by ordering directly from farms and cooperatives that work with smaller farmers and growers. This allows us to maintain very attractive prices on our menus,” he says.

There is a wrangling over the cost though—some experts wrinkle up their nose, while acknowledging the superior quality, at the higher cost of artisanal products. Others beg to differ. Aditi Handa, head baker and co-founder at The Baker’s Dozen says, “The manufacturing cost of artisanal products is generally higher than most machine-made mass products. However, to keep them affordable, we source most of our raw material through local farms, ensuring quality and competitive prices.”

With such an assurance from the restaurateurs themselves—essential for these times of pandemic-hit purses—there is no reason not to order a Pascati chocolate bar with an untrembling hand.


Artisan’s Goodness

Five reasons, as spelt by nutritionist Kavita Devgan, why artisanal food is good

Good for health: They are of higher quality both in terms of ingredients as well as processes used (fermentation, for example). As these foods don’t travel long distances, their vital nutrients (vitamins and minerals) are preserved better. They avoid chemicals, additives, and pesticides.

Good for society: Mostly made by local farmers, they provide jobs to skilled workers (artisans).

Good for the soul: Most of these businesses are guided by fair trade practices rather than profit motive.

Good for the planet: Consuming locally made artisanal food is one of the easiest ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Good for taste buds: These foods, made in small batches, are robust in flavour, with wonderful textures.