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.”
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
Happy Monk Tidings - November 2, 2022 🍞 - BAKER'S CHOICE: Cinnamon-Raisin Bread; BLOG: A Vancouver Neighbourhood; BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 28, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice: The Approachable Loaf; Blog: This Island of Apples; South Pender Growers and Makers Market [ See LinkTree in Profile ]
#apples #applebread #applelove #approachable #approachableloaf #breadlabcollective #breadlab...
Introducing this bread, Raven Ring Bread (a take on Hapanleipä, a Finnish bread) a recipe borrowed from @ravenbreads. The stand is made by my neighbour, Ken, a gifted woodworker. See you at the South Pender Growers and Makers Market, if it don’t rain too hard!...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 2, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice : Volkornbrot (German Rye); Blog: The Golden Loaf of Gorsefield Rye; NOTE: We're closing two weeks for Mildrith Maintenance [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
It was a dirty day, Wednesday. The sky hadn't been washed, the ocean was soiled, and the air was muggy and smelled oily. Then, moments before the rain started, the sun shone through and a glorious slash of colour opened up. And a rainbow! No unicorns, sadly....
Dog days. The beginning of summer mellowness. Baked in languor. But sometimes it's hard to let go. Shouldn't I be baking something? [See LinkTree in Profile ]
#penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery
#happymonkbakingcompany #dogdays #dogdaysofsummer #southerngulfislands
#southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #southerngulfislandsbc...
This is James Morton, my father, who would have been 100 years old today if we hadn't lost him 36 years ago. I've surpassed him in living age and spent more years without him than with him, yet he still whispers in my ear and is a great listener when I talk to him. Taken at 14th Ave. and Burgess St., Burnaby, 'round about 1955. Handsome devil, ain't he?...
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 Recipeshas 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.↩