Take a stroll down the aisles of your local supermarket or gourmet food store and you may notice that many foods are labeled “artisan” or “artisanal”. You’ll find products such as bread, chocolate, cookies, crackers, coffee, flour, gourmet cheese, granola, oils, pasta, salami, salt, spices, and vinegar described as “artisan(al)”. And this term is not just reserved for specialty foods, mass grocery brands are employing them as well. Sargento Artisan Cheese Blends and Wheat Thins artisan peintre 94 Artisan Cheese Crackers are perfect examples. How are shoppers to know whether this is just a savvy marketing term or if their product selection is truly “artisan(al)”?
The main issue with the term “artisan(al)” is that it’s not regulated by the FDA like other food label terms such as “low-fat”, which have strict usage guidelines. “Artisan(al)” also bears different meanings across different food categories. Artisan coffee implies the beans are roasted in small batches while Italian artisan balsamic vinegar is produced according to strict regulations regarding recipe, process and region. Essentially, the common denominator for the term “artisan(al)” is to suggest associations of high-quality and to differentiate the product from mass produced foods.
When shopping for cheese in the United States, the origin of production plays a major role in how it’s labeled. The countries of the European Union (EU) have long recognized how food and wine is not only a way of life and a symbol of cultural and national pride but also an important tradition worthy of preservation and continuation. In an effort to protect these types of foods, to ensure a high-quality product and to minimize consumer confusion of similar products, the EU has developed the “Protected Designation of Origin”- a culinary copyright, if you will. Strict rules govern production particular to the protected food and wine such as region, recipe and method. The countries of France, Italy and Spain have greater quantities of foods and wines that benefit from this labeling system and each have a different acronym reflecting the translation into their respective languages – AOC, DOP and DO respectively. To make matters confusing, a PDO labeled food does not necessarily guarantee an artisanal product, as there are mass producers adhering to these stringent rules. And conversely, there are plenty of high-quality European foods made by hand in small batches that do not benefit from PDO status. See the article below for more information on European food labeling laws.
According to The American Cheese Society, an organization supporting American artisanal and gourmet cheeses, for American cheeses to be labeled “artisanal”, the focus is on the process (and not the region, like in the EU). American artisanal cheeses are typically made by hand in a traditional manor and in small batches. This allows for the cheese maker to have greater control over the quality, flavor and craftsmanship.
To feel confident that the gourmet cheese you are selecting is indeed artisanal, take a look at the label or ask the cheese monger. Is it made by a small company or a large corporation? Does the packaging offer details about the production process and the cheese maker? Regardless of the “artisan(al)” term, what matters most when selecting gourmet cheese is the taste. High-quality will always be reflected in the flavor.
About Sara Kahn
Even though her passion for gourmet cheese was undying, Sara Kahn found shopping for it to be overwhelming, time consuming and confusing. She established [http://www.thecheeseambassador.com] to offer a simple way to select and serve the world’s finest cheeses. By providing the perfect combination of exquisite cheese along with a comprehensive cheese course guide, enjoying gourmet cheese is now a deliciously enriching experience.