Exploring the artisan way of life

13 January 2022, 07:12 AM
  • James Grant of No2 Pound Street reflects on what makes artisan food so special in his latest column
Exploring the artisan way of life

Way back before the industrial age and supermarket food, there was a real understanding of food.

After stone age man gathered together and became familiar with the land, an agrarian lifestyle began. Now food was not only for the fittest but became the backbone of communities.

People worked together for the common good of their communities. Over the years, trades were created to help sustain the lifestyle born through these agricultural lifestyles. All was aimed at improving and being able to produce food efficiently.

In certain areas of the world you can still find those farmers that are at one with the land and their livestock. Recently, after visiting the Asturias for The World Cheese Awards, I was delighted to be able to spend some time exploring this fabulous region.

For those of you that have followed my column over the last year you will be aware that I do not speak highly of mass production and supermarket foods. The artisan way of life is a different approach to food and beverage and has its roots in the Fertile Crescent some 10-12 thousand years ago. It was not really artisan, it was just how things were done.

The work required to produce a good harvest needed a community to pull together. It was simply a way of life.

In Northern Spain, in the Asturias, you can find small villages that still embrace this theory; communities living and working harmoniously together. One such cheesemaker is Marta from Queseria Ca Sanchu in the town of Ambás, part of the Municipality of Grau, who produces fine artisan cheese.

The cheese she makes is D’Afuega’l Pitu, a lactic curd cheese that has many styles. A soft cow’s curd cheese served within 48 hours, another that is six weeks old, and a third that is aged for two-and-a-half months and a rounded chestnut-shaped cheese. In Marta’s town of Ambás and throughout the Asturias you will also find Hórreos: these structures have been in the Asturias since the 13th century and are mainly used as a granary.

In the Asturias they are built in squares and balanced on four to six pegoyos (stone pillars) with a muelas on top of each (flat square or round stone/slate) to prevent rodents from entering. These structures are still used today by the village to store and dry food. Marta ages some of her D’Afuega’l Pitu here. The Hórreos are sectioned into areas for each family to store their foods.

The milk that Marta uses is from her neighbour’s farm, also near Ambás. She embraces the community by supporting and offering work to those within the area. Her cheese is only sold at local markets and feeds the village. Marta lives a real artisan way of life. Her family does this by embracing the landscape and what it has to offer. The communities are tight in this area and the people seem relaxed and happy. When I asked how could I get this cheese in the UK, she said that it was not for export. The production is limited to the needs of her town and the markets that she regularly attends.

What I love about this area is that there is a real understanding of the land. What it gives is through the sheer hard work of the people. If you work hard and embrace the elements for all they give, you will be rewarded. Sometimes the year’s rewards may be smaller and others years larger. It is about subsistence for Marta and the majority of the agricultural community in The Asturias.

When I stood outside of this lovely old dairy I breathed deeply and allowed the scenery to engulf me. I then felt immediately at ease. If only we could take more time with our produce and consider the environment.

We should only take from the earth what is needed. On the back of COP26 the way we build our businesses needs to be carefully considered. There is enough for us to work with in our communities. We really do not need to mass produce, and an artisan lifestyle is not a new hip idea, it is how we began. It is about taking from and giving back to our community. As the lovely food author Jenny Linford said, “time is the missing ingredient” and should be embraced with the respect it deserves.

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