When I think of the word artisanal, the term “hand-made” pops into my head. But what does hand-made mean when it comes to cheese? There are a few things that define the term for me, and a few things that clearly don’t. Scale, for example, is a clear don’t in my mind. Who is to say whether a sole wheel of cheese produced by a shepherd in the Pyrenees is more artisanal than the hundred wheels produced by a cheesemaker in Vermont over the same season? When you start talking in terms of tons of cheese produced, sure, scale is a handy rule to measure by, but otherwise it’s misleading. After all, you can have a large and successful artisan cheese operation – cheesemakers are allowed to dream big too.
When you break down the word artisanal, you find “artisan”, which is the obvious and first of the three aspects that defines the term for me. It’s a basic point, but at some stage in the life of the cheese it needs to have come into contact with an artisan and that all important human touch. Whether through hand salting, hand brushing, hand flipping or hand bathing, the cheese needs to have been touched and cared for by the cheesemaker.
The second part of the definition is the actual product, namely the ingredients. Sure, you can have bad artisan cheese (inferior milk perhaps), but that’s a different issue. The point here is that the ingredient list defines whether the product is artisanal, and in the cheese world that list can include: milk, enzymes, cultures, salt, rennet and natural colorants. I’m not a total naturalist by any means, but I think if you’re starting with mainly processed and unnatural building blocks then you don’t get to call your product artisanal.
Finally, the tools – many artisan cheesemakers still use equipment from generations ago, but does adopting modern techniques preclude them from being considered artists? In my mind it is perfectly OK if the equipment or techniques ultimately better the quality of the end product. But it becomes less clear when the goal is to increase quantity or to extend shelf life. When you have a true artist, and the bare necessity ingredients and tools, you have the making of an artisan product. And like all art, while the price tag may be steep, it’s meant to bring pleasure. So enjoy the art, and seek out cheese that has truly earned the name artisanal.