Artisanal foods have become quite popular in recent years, with some abuse of the term by mass-retailers and fast food restaurants.
So, what is artisanal food in the most honest and rudimentary of definitions? It is food hand-produced in small batches, with emphasis on quality of individual ingredients and, thus, product as a whole, while often exploring a creative melding of flavors.
Recently, I sampled chèvre and feta from Windy Hill Goat Diary in Cherry Valley. The chèvre sampled came in flavors ranging from salsa to maple. I consider myself a fairly creative person, but I don’t think I would have thought to make a bacon-and-ranch-flavored cheese (let alone the logistics of actually making it). But, it makes sense — we often incorporate cheese into salads with bacon and ranch, so why not incorporate those flavors into the cheese?
I spoke with owner and artisan Barry Gaughan and learned he began raising goats in high school. Soon after, he realized he would like to work with goats for a living. “Cheese seemed like the way to go. So, now, we are producing farmstead goat cheese,” he said.
Gaughan said developing the recipe to achieve the exact flavor he desires is the real art. It is incredibly important to be able to easily replicate the process, to ensure the same great quality with each batch, he added. Harvesting the best materials. Thoughtful experimentation.
Those are steps all artists can identify with, including food artisans. And, the ingenuity doesn’t just stop with the creation of a single food product. Eateries are also using artisanal foods in their menus, thus inspiring a whole new set of artists creating a final product. The process is comparable to a bead maker selling beads to a jewelry designer. The jewelry designer takes the beads, combines them with other materials, and creates a necklace. Although consumers are no longer buying just the beads, the beads play a vital role in the new product.
Mt. Wellington Market, at 7471 State Highway 80 in Cooperstown, not only sells many locally produced goods, but uses them in its menu as well. The market’s most unique item, and perhaps what really made the community buzz when its doors opened in 2010, is a breakfast sandwich made with a Schneider’s Bakery old-fashioned doughnut. And, this year, locally sourced hot-pepper jelly is adding spice to the ever-evolving menu.
“From the start, we wanted to be a place where customers could purchase the amazing food and handmade gifts our region is known for producing. We started with jelly and granola, but have expanded our selection to now include quite a variety, including maple syrup, BBQ sauces, chocolate-covered bacon and more,” owner Will Gibson said.
Will’s favorite part of selling artisanal foods? “Seeing our customers’ reactions when we let them taste-test the foods we sell. We have some pretty unique items that we sample, like the Road Kill Slather Sauce created by students at SUNY Morrisville. The condiment, a competitor to ketchup, is always a crowd pleaser, despite the funny name.”
Artisanal food is often popular with locavores, those whom have made a commitment to eat locally harvested and produced foods. As such, farmers’ markets, small shops and roadside stands are great places to discover artisanal foods.
So, keep your eyes and taste buds open, and think of the various forms of artistry involved in the product — from the food itself to the packaging. And, don’t always judge a product by its name — Road Kill Slather Sauce is one of Mt. Wellington Market’s most popular items.
June Dzialo is a member of ArtsOtsego, the alliance of Otsego County arts organizations, and marketing director for The Glimmerglass Festival. Column ideas and questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Around the Arts columns, visit www.thedailystar.com/around