Artisanal or commercial - the debate rages

April 21, 2011

Purists seem to think that there is a clear line between what is considered a local, artisanal product and therefore desirable and a mass produced, commercial product that is not so desirable. I can tell you that the two worlds are just shades of grey with lots of light to be shone on both sides of the argument.

When Gail Hall and her culinary group were in Italy they toured a Parmesan cheese producer. The cheese maker worked for a farmer’s cooperative and each day received the milk from the farmers and made cheese in a time honoured and traditional manner. He heated the milk, captured the curd and formed it into large wheels of cheese which he put through a finishing process and aged for up to two years. Each day he produced 18 wheels of cheese and had about 2000 wheels in storage. In other creameries, other cheese makers were doing the same thing with milk from their farmer’s cattle. The process in each facility was carefully monitored by a government official to ensure health, purity and processing rules were followed closely.

In every telling of this story the artisanal and heritage aspects of the creative process is highlighted.

This week we visited the Tillamook County Creamery Association cheese factory in Oregon. This is a farmer’s co-operative and each day the creamery receives the milk from the farmers and makes cheese in accordance with a 100 year old process and recipe. The milk is heated, the curd and whey are separated and the curd is formed into large 42 pound blocks of cheese. These are vacuum packed, boxed and aged for up to three years. At the appropriate time the cheese is cut into smaller blocks, weighed, packaged and shipped to stores around the Pacific Northwest. The entire process from cow to store is carefully monitored by the cooperative, government health and agriculture officials and even a rabbi.

This process, despite its long history, high standards and desirable end product is considered commercial and not artisanal.

The locals in both cheese production plans are proud of the history, culture (no pun intended) and quality of their product. Both groups call their product local and celebrate the effect of it on the local economy, self esteem and community pride. Is the product of a smaller producer any better in any quantifiable metric? Is the mass produced product inferior just because of the size of the production plant?

I cannot resolve the question. I just appreciate that the argument exists.

That’s what I am thinking about.

Jon Hall

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