People have a lot of reasons for choosing the artisan products they like most. Some who appreciate handmade foods care most about flavor and texture, others make their decisions based on how the well production animals are treated. Some people simply prefer foods that were produced by people they know, or a brand with which they are familiar. Like most people who prefer handmade foods, I make my decisions using a combination of similar virtues, but flavor is king. So, what makes something taste good? Sure, there are technical characteristics that “cull the wheat from the chaff”, but that is the most basic way any cured meat or cheese, for example, qualifies for shelf space potential, in the eyes of a skilled purchaser. Things can get complicated when you start considering the nuanced virtues of the flavor of one quality product over another. Again, setting technical aspects aside with regard to general market trends (like whether or not truffles are liked or disliked by celebrity chefs in a given year, or whether a particular market would even consider products like flavored, or fruited cheeses, for example). Let’s consider how we might pick what we want to serve. You can decide, “This is the spice or flavor notes that I like, and therefore I can express myself through what I serve.” Or, you move empathy to the forefront by trying to make decisions based on what you think your guests, or customers, will like most. (Or, you can advocate so strongly that what you like tastes so good, that your guests decide they think what you like tastes best to them, regardless of their initial, or isolated impressions. Manipulative? Yes. Bad?Maybe not?) In my analysis, considering that the appreciation of certain taste intensities and flavor compounds over others is influenced greatly by associations made over a lifetime of unique experiences, I rely on isolating the qualities of flavor that supersede those subjective complications (such as, I ate chocolate one time when I was a child, and a dog bit me, so I prefer not to eat chocolate as an adult, etc…) For this reason, I prioritize the expression of terroir.
For me, the more localized and isolated the relationship is between the final product and the land it came from, the better. Artisan products are handmade, yes. However, this is just the beginning. Actually, any excellent craftsman will tell you that it is mostly non-human hands that effect the flavor of an artisan product. This is where the product’s identity becomes revealed. Now, you could say that there is virtue in a given product travelling all over the place in the hands of many different people in many different places still expresses unique qualities, identified specifically to that production chain. Okay, good for that chain, but it is not interesting to me that at one time, one thing was made, and the variables are such that the nuances of flavor variation are scattered like dust in the wind. What am I learning about this product that is revealed through it’s flavor? What are the underpinnings of my appreciation for such an arbitrary creation, and what can I rely on to make my choices in the future about what I like and who I support based on how that product tastes? Something as impactful as seasonality can suddenly become much less significant as a control for the desirability of a product, when a product is moved between different locations throughout the production chain. Also, when factors such as raw material sourcing can be swapped out, even if at the whim of the producer, how am I to rely on the consistency of flavor? I like to know that when I eat something, it represents the flavors of a place, specifically, the organoleptic characteristics of the air, earth, water, and things that live there. From good land comes wholesome food, and expresses the flavor preferences of that land’s culture. This is how I appreciate food without needing to get mixed up with trendy flavors or ingredient fads. I also can gain a broader perspective on the complexities of human culture, without going as far as travelling to that place, but with a more intimate experience than living vicariously through Rick Steves, as he travels through Europe. The farmstead product I eat is like a snapshot that I view with more than just my eyes. I can taste, smell, even feel the qualities of that place. Is it likely that a guest will be looking for that experience from that place when they are eating such a product? Well, unlikely, but sometimes. Yes, sometimes someone asks for something specifically from a place. Maybe they went to that place on vacation, or that place is their home. Sometimes people want to share with others an experience that goes beyond flipping through pictures on your phone. Sometimes it is a remedy for homesickness, bringing comfort to a traveler who has nothing else but external references and Skype to evoke the more dynamic sensory experiences of “home”. These are special moments for both the host and the guest, or the retailer and customer, but this is not the only reason to stock shelves with farmstead products. It is also important because time changes, and generations of life, especially bacterial life, can disappear in an instant.
The moment a product is not made anymore in a particular place, the lineage of that product can be broken forever. Even if it is started up again, being made the same way in the same place, the bacterial cultures may have changed, and that can only start new flavors, it cannot bring back lost generations of old flavors, and that makes the product different. Also, the farmers decide how to express the terroir of a land, and if those farmers call that place home, then they are integral to it’s terroir, as well, and that makes the flavor even more identified with the culture of a place. A farm that is also a the family’s home encourages the family farmer to determine how it can most efficiently be cultivated and sustained over time. Land that is tended by those who have more than capitalistic motivations, is stewarded rather than exploited. I think it feels better to eat products made on loved, as well as farmed land.
Matt Brichford and Leslie Jacobs are such farmers. Their Hoosier Homestead Farm, nestled in the heart of the Whitewater Valley in southeastern Indiana, has been in Matt Brichford’s family for over 100 years. Dairy farming is a very difficult business. As a commodity, milk prices fluctuate greatly according to complex variables and market forces, all of which have nothing to do with what one farmer does to produce excellent milk on one farm. A few farmers are lucky enough to be paid a premium for producing excellent milk. Unfortunately, great milk cannot travel far, especially if it is to be made into excellent cheese. So, unless there is a creamery nearby, your farm is compensated the same whether you make a relatively small amount great milk or a whole lot of okay milk. Overtime, it became obvious to the Jacobs and Brichford family that sustaining excellent farming in the production of excellent milk on their land meant exiting the commodity milk market and adding market value to their milk. They settled on turning their excellent milk into excellent cheese. This meant keeping their herd of cows on open pasture, continuing to selectively breed for the best milk producing animals, namely a mix of mostly Jersey and Normande cattle, and building a cheesemaking facility on their farm. It also meant becoming students of traditional farmstead cheese-making, partly through farm and facility visits in Europe. Their commitment to producing raw milk cheeses means that they would be connecting their product to their home terroir. In the production of their soft, rich cheese called “Ameribella”, and their Alpine-style “Everton” Jacobs and Brichford soon gained the appreciation of cheese lovers throughout the midwest, and now can be found in the finest specialty cheese shops from coast to coast.
It always amazed me that when I go to trade shows I see so many artisans standing behind their tasting tables, sampling and selling their products. Where do they find the time? I have seen either Matt, Leslie, often both, or daughter Maize, or all three at once so many times, I am in awe that they also run a farm, make and age their own cheese – and some of the best cheese I have ever tasted in my life to boot! I called Matt the other day and he said he had spent the morning finishing off calving the last of his cows for the season. This is what farmers do. Then, usually, cheese makers make cheese, and salesman sell. Jacobs and Brichford does all of these things, as a family, on the highest level, and with over a hundred years of terroir building and family history at stake. This is what I think makes the most delicious artisan food. Through an artisan food, I want to taste what the craftsman wants me to experience, as well as sense a portion of what they feel everyday in their world. But I also want to know that what I am eating stands tall next to the finest crafted products in the world. Matt Brichford told me that Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, approached his tasting table at a trade show once, and when Matt described his cheese as being “Taleggio-style”, Mr Petrini replied, “This is not like Taleggio, Taleggio is Taleggio. This is Ameribella!” It was like Mr Petrini was saying that in it’s own way, and much more specifically than “Taleggio” can claim, Ameribella is unique and excellent and, since it is made from raw milk, expresses the Whitewater Valley, not the Taleggio Valley. For flavor, I like Ameribella more than any Taleggio. But for my guest or customer, I would want them to experience the contrasts and compare Ameribella to a farmstead, raw milk Taleggio, and develop an understanding for the importance of terroir.
Here is a link to learn more about Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese and places you can buy it:
Here are some more thoughts on the virtues of Farmstead versus Creamery, Cooperative Dairying and Affinage…
Most efficient in cheese production
Focuses on the talents of specialized artisans
An abstract, removed from the larger production chain that begins on the farm
Removed from the micro-flora colonies that resides on the farm, reducing the flavor connection to terroir
All stages of artisan production completed on the farm
A more pure expression of a specific or localized terroir through the product
Can be inefficient without a wide variety of skills and a huge amount of effort in production
Efficiently adds value to aged cheeses, especially
Very specialized and tends toward the most reliably successful aging of cheeses
Creates faster cash flow return to cheese makers
Can operate most easily as wholesalers, and can adjust most quickly to the specifications of buyers, creating increased potential for a more marketable product to consumers
Terroir connection is often relatively absent due to the effect cave dwelling cultures can have on the flavors of a developing product
Trace-ability is often compromised, either due to how many hands the product passed through, or because the affineur/wholesaler wants to protect or obscure the source of the product
An expression of general area terroir, due to the use of approved cultures, breeding, feeding, production methods, etc. in combination with an area’s terrain, general soil composition, weather, climate and even cultural flavor preferences
Most efficient and potentially sustainable structure for positive economic growth among all partners of the production chain
Inclined to pasteurization, mechanization, industrialization and commodification, which are at odds with the development of a terroir identity
Once milk is pooled, complete trace-ability to a single farm of origin cannot exist