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The Honest Baker

Jeffrey Hamelman, veteran baker and author of Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes

Jeffrey Hamelman has a problem with artisan bakers.

The legendary American baker and author, writing in the Bread Bakers Guild newsletter, 1 thinks there’s nothing wrong with just being a baker.

The increasing use of the term “artisan,” he says, is a ploy that “elevates bakers’ importance while at the same time separating them from other woefully “non-artisan” bakers.

It’s a term that’s increasingly used for bakers and bread loaves alike.

Yet a reliable definition of the term remains out of reach and is often debated in the bread world. An artisan bread loaf can loosely be defined as one made with high-quality ingredients by a baker who pays close attention to maximum flavour and colour.

A “plastic loaf” — a grocery store bread sliced and bagged in plastic — might also be made by a baker with the same concerns. Each could be called bread; it’s just the techniques that are different. One has more flavour and texture. The other is inexpensive and toasts up nicely enough.

Layers of flavour, crunch of the crust

But we all know which loaf we’d choose if they were on the same table. We’d go for the crusty one with the heavenly aroma and the airy crumb. We’d look forward to the layers of flavour, the crunch of the crust, the beauty of the airy interior. It’s the one we might call “artisan,” if asked which loaf was which.

Not long ago, I was waiting in line to pay for some items at a Whole Foods store in Victoria. Like any mega-retail operation, the store actively markets its products right up until your exit from the store.

A video screen next to the cash register showed a photo of a delicious-looking “artisan loaf.” It had the tagline: “Maybe you and bread should be a thing again. #Bread #MakesMeWhole”

Gotta hand it to those marketers! You’d think Whole Foods discovered artisan bread!

We recognize the handmade loaf of bread with the flaky crust, the trail of crumbs, the rough, peasant quality. After decades of industrial “wonder bread” in plastic packaging, it’s something new in our world. Yet it’s not new at all, and it looks and tastes the way bread was made for thousands of years.

But it’s made new with the term “artisan” applied to it.

And bakers, seeking an elevated status in this new world, have donned the word to describe themselves. It suggests they’re no longer the lowly bakers of yester-year (“the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker”). We are artisan bakers, they say. More than the simple archetype in a white T-shirt, a baker’s cap and a pencil behind their ear.

What does it mean to be an artisan baker?

But the self-identified artisan baker might have difficulty providing a clear definition of what, exactly, it means to be an artisan.

Hamelman wonders if the term suggests a hierarchy in the world of bakers (or plumbers or electricians for that matter), “a pecking order of superiority for the “artisan” and progressively lower ranking for the others.”

Hamelman’s credentials are unassailable. He began baking in 1976 for a German baker, a woman who, reluctantly, accepted him as an apprentice. She believed no American was capable of being a baker but took him on only because, over several months, he’d not taken ‘no’ for an answer.

His first job was rolling and shaping pretzels. Over the next five years, he worked his way through the classic French and German bread and pastry repertoire.

In those days, the term artisan was not in the bread baking vocabulary, according to Hamelman. At least not to denote that some bakers were better than others, based on their skill or product line.

“I knew I was at the very low end of skill and understanding with a long way to go before I would even remotely approach these bakers’ quality, efficiency, and skill level.”

“I work in a bakery”

‘Whenever I was in a social situation, and someone asked me, “what do you do?” my answer was always the same: “I work in a bakery.” For more than four years, that was all I would say because I did not have the internal sense that I was a real baker yet. Finally, after almost five years, I felt an inner awareness that I had successfully served a sort of informal, non-structured apprenticeship. I had learned pretty well.

Only then, when asked what I did, could I say, “I am a baker.”

And saying that always has, to this day, filled me with immense pride. For me, that’s enough. Artisan or not artisan, I really don’t care at all. Isn’t it enough to simply be a “baker?” The term has such a deep honour associated with it. I am a baker and proud to be one.”

Your Happy Monk baker is relatively new to the baking world, and by Hamelman’s measure, might be worthy of claiming the description of “working in a bakery.” I take pride in the bread I bake, which might even qualify for a Whole Foods marketing pitch. I make my bread well, but I have no illusion that I rank high in the bread world.

And someday, I might take pride in calling myself a “baker.”


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These corn kernels are headed to the mill to make cornmeal for Anadama Bread this week. It’s a bread with origins on the east coast, but that shouldn’t stop us west coasters from enjoying it, too, godanadamit! This is organic field corn from @fieldstoneorganics of Armstrong, B.C. … and the hard red whole wheat from Metchosin, B.C. make this Happy Monk take on Anadama a bona fide west coast phenomenon! Just sayin’!
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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

These corn kernels are headed to the mill to make cornmeal for Anadama Bread this week. It’s a bread with origins on the east coast, but that shouldn’t stop us west coasters from enjoying it, too, godanadamit! This is organic field corn from @fieldstoneorganics of Armstrong, B.C. … and the hard red whole wheat from Metchosin, B.C. make this Happy Monk take on Anadama a bona fide west coast phenomenon! Just sayin’!
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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
...

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Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven. 
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland

Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven.
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland
...

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The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though!

The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though! ...

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  1. He’s been a professional baker for 45 years and a competitor in international baking competitions. His book Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes has won awards and become the standard text on North American bread and baking. A third edition of the book will be released in March 2021.

2 thoughts on “The Honest Baker

  1. […] not a big fan of the word “artisan,” as I explained in this post several months back. But the word is convenient when differentiating loaves of […]

  2. […] made by an individual using traditional methods; in other words, handmade. I think of the “The Honest Baker,” the fellow at the shaping bench, loading dough into baskets or pulling beautiful burnished […]

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