What “Artisan” Really Means

Cheese maker at Sprout Creek hand curdling milk for making cheese.

by Eric Paul and Alifair Skebe

I have been in the artisan food business for 13 years. My work in the food business has primarily been in “artisan cheese and artisan specialty foods.” In recent months, I have noticed the debate over the terms “artisan” and “artisanal” and their wide-spread commercial use, following the introduction of Domino Pizza’s Artisan Line. An article came out last week in The Atlantic Wire writing an obituary for the word: “Artisanal, Reluctant Branding Pioneer Dies at Age 474.” The word ‘artisan’ came into use in food because the words ‘gourmet’, ‘fine’ and ‘specialty’ became meaningless after they were co-opted by the mainstream food industry.

Gordon Edgar, author of Cheesemonger: Life on the Wedge, wrote a blog article entitled “Don’t Mourn the Death of Artisan.” In the article, Gordon suggests, citing various examples of recent media, that cheesemongers abandon the now meaningless term artisan and continue to focus on quality. Just as the micro brew makers were unshaken by the fallacious, industrially produced “craft beers,” “artisan” cheese makers and sellers must continue to support high-quality, hand-crafted cheeses…without the jargon. He says, “Once people taste handcrafted, well-made, well-aged cheese, they are hard to fool with imposters.” On the whole I agree with Gordon that the word artisan has been co-opted; however, as a cheesemonger, I argue that it is his and my job to define these words with clarity. The words “artisan” and “artisanal” have long and clear definitions with respect to cheese.

Patrick Rance, author of The French Cheese Book, defines “artisanal” as “Cheese made by hand rather than by machine.”[1] This meaning derives from the word “artisan” understood as a “handicraftsman.”[2] The earliest form of the words come from the Latin ars, artis which denote both the artisan’s “craft, skill, or trade” and the artist’s “work of art, invention, or device.”[3] Artisans formed guilds to protect trade secrets, and the guilds were necessarily small. Today these secrets can be learned at programs such as the Cheesemaking Certificate Program offered at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont. Artisan cheese makers today are truly old-world craftsmen, producing cheese by hand in the old tradition. As food artists, they infuse their own skill and ingenuity into the batches to make delicious variations.

Sharon and Bob hand making cheese at Cooperstown Cheese Company

In France the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée has long maintained categories and conditions for production. To me, the A.O.C. definitions provide such clarity:

* fermier (made in a farmhouse, chalet d’alpage, buron, or other mountain hut) — An individual producer uses the milk of animals (cows, goats, sheep) raised only on his or her farm to make cheese following traditional methods. Milk from neighboring farms is not allowed. Only raw milk may be used. Quantity Produced — Small

* artisanal — An individual producer uses the milk of animals raised on his or her farm, or buys in milk to make cheese. The producer is the owner of the dairy but all the milk may be bought elsewhere. Quantity Produced– Small to medium

* cooperative (also fruitières) — The cheese is made in a single dairy with milk provided by members of the cooperative. Quantity Produced — Medium to large

* industriel — The milk is bought from a number of producers, sometimes from distant regions. Production is industrial. Quantity Produced — Large.[4]

These classifications help to be able to talk about very specific standards for production when it comes to cheese. Until recently this language for talking about method, sourcing, and scale has been efficient and effective. The co-opted industrial use of the term has certainly clouded the ability to get the message out. For my business, I am specifically interested in cheeses made as artisanal and fermier, which can easily be translated as “farmhouse.” I continue to use these words frequently with customers and in cheese descriptions, because despite the hype, I am still able to convey a specific meaning for the term that has a history in cheese production that persists today.

Most of the specialty foods that I sell and find most interesting are of a similar scale of production with similar ingredient quality and sourcing; therefore, I use similar terms to describe them. And yes, there is an entire section of the food industry ubiquitously known as “specialty foods.” The larger businesses will continue to try to steal market share by using words falsely; however, the best cheesemongers will continue to showcase a true product worth the quality and the name. With so many companies out there redefining what “artisan” means, the cheesemongers with both knowledge and integrity are the A.O.C. for America, distinguishing the standards and measures for quality products and delivering these to our public.


[1] Rance, Patrick. The French Cheese Book. London: Papermac, 1991, 537.

[2] Oxford French Dictionary

[3] Traupman, John C. The New College Latin and English Dictionary. New York: Bantam Books, 2007, 68.

[4] See French Cheeses, published by Dorling Kindersly, revised edition 2000, Pg. 22.

2 thoughts on “What “Artisan” Really Means

  1. Pingback: What “Artisan” Really Means | Cheese Cave

  2. Pingback: Cheese…and a Revolution! | The Cheese Traveler

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