As someone who has earned his livelihood as a baker for just about four decades, I’ve seen some interesting trends develop in our trade. One trend has been the increasing use of the term “artisan” by a segment of bakers, as if the term somehow elevates their skill or their product line at the same time as it separates them from some other group of woefully “non-artisan” bakers. Lengthy discussions have taken place about the definition of “artisan bread” and “artisan baker.”

Regardless of the passion with which many bakers stick to their self-definition as artisan baker, a clear and reliable definition of the term remains aloof, and even those who call themselves artisan bakers often have difficulty providing a convincing definition of what, exactly, it means to be an artisan baker.

One of the breads I bake uses excellent unbleached flour to make, first of all, a fragrant, ripe poolish. After attentive mixing of the final dough, with careful focus on water temperature, revolutions per minute of the mixer, and so on, the dough receives sufficient bulk fermentation to develop lovely subtle flavor. Next, the dough is hand-scaled and then hand-shaped baguettes are formed, which rise between folds of bakers linen in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Once ready to bake, they are cut with precision and care, and the cuts generally open up beautifully; they bake on the hearth and have fantastic flavor.

Am I then, an “artisan” baker?

Don’t leap to conclusions. I take the same dough and use it to make pan loaves. Pan loaves? Such audacity! Well, clearly I must be a “non-artisan” baker if I stoop to that level. Actually, the same dough also makes oval loaves, focaccia, fougasse, rolls, and pizza, so I suppose I must have a terrible identity crisis.

I had an interesting experience several years ago. I was renting a log cabin in the woods of Vermont, a private rustic place. One problem was that the old pipes stained the laundry. I decided to fix things by installing an in-line water filter. I got a good one from the hardware store, shut the water main, used a hack saw to cleanly cut through the pipes, and followed the directions carefully to install the filter. I put an even coating of flux on the pipes, and then used my soldering iron to seal everything tight.

By the time I was done, I had used a massive amount of solder — it looked like dripping stalactites on the roof of a cave. I didn’t care, though; after all, the filter was in the basement and no one would see the poor workmanship. I was proud to have completed the work.

Unfortunately, when I turned on the water main again, a little drip-drip-drip started. No problem. I heated up the soldering iron again and added another wad of solder. Again: drip-drip-drip. After a third failed attempt, I put a bucket under the drip and called the plumber. He arrived next day, and fortunately I was at work.

My wife led him to the basement. He looked at my work, walked around to the other side and looked again. His shoulders sagged, he began shaking his head.

“He don’t know what he’s doing,” he said to my wife.

“He’s a really good baker,” was her cheery response.

“That’s a good job for him,” said the plumber.

When I got home, I checked out the basement. He had made the connection cleanly, with a thin even bead of solder, and, of course, there were no drips. I was impressed with the skill and minimalist perfection. In a cardboard box he had left my pile of solder, intentionally I’m sure. What an eyesore.

Recently, after reading once again about the presumed superiority of “artisan” bakers, I thought of that episode with the water filter, and my dismal failure, and the clean work of the trained plumber. I wondered if there is a hierarchy in the world of plumbers (or electricians or countless other trades), a pecking order of superiority for the “artisan” and progressively lower ranking for the others. I wondered why we bakers even have this discussion.

When I began baking in 1976, the term artisan was not yet in use among bakers; at least it was certainly not used to denote that some bakers were better than others based not so much on skill as on attitude and product line. There were good bakers, bad bakers, and in-between bakers — just like there are today. For myself, I worked alongside Germans and Frenchmen, and slowly learned many of the great classic doughs and products common to European bakers. I spent five years in that environment. And I knew that I was at the very low end of skill and understanding and had a long, long way to go before I would ever remotely approach my teachers’ quality, consistency, and efficiency.

Whenever I was in a social situation and someone asked me “what do you do?” my answer was always the same: “I work in a bakery.”

For more than four years that was all I would say because I did not have the internal sense that I was a real baker yet. Finally, after almost five years, I felt an inner awareness that I had successfully served a sort of informal, non-structured apprenticeship and had learned pretty well. Only then, when asked what I did, could I say “I am a baker.” And saying that always filled me with immense pride. For me, that’s enough. Artisan or not artisan, I really don’t care at all.

I’m a baker, and proud to be one. Isn’t it enough to simply be a “baker?” The term has such a deep honor associated with it.

**

If you’d like to read more about Jeffrey Hamelman’s thoughts on bread, being a baker, and more, check out our Summer 2016 issue for an in-depth, fun interview with the master baker.

5 comments on “Ever See an Artisan Plumber?”

  1. Lumi says:

    Captivating story, amazing baker. What a legend! I could listen on and on to his tales. Thank you! Peace, Love and Bread.

  2. Tonia says:

    I too am “just” a baker. I’ve been baking since I was old enough to “help” my mom make Parker House rolls (about 2?!). I bake because I like the textures, flavors, smells, the whole experience of baking. I bake because I love to see people’s faces light up when you give them something fresh out of the oven, when that look of glazed-eyes and deep sigh of appreciation crosses their face. I bake because I like to feed people — “Eat! Eat!!” Baking feeds my soul, is an outlet for my creativity. I’m a baker. 🙂

  3. John O'Brien says:

    I have no idea of the state of affairs in the US but, in the U.K., at least, the word ‘bread’, itself, has been sullied by the doughy pap turned out by no-time processes, which is the vast majority of what’s on offer to the public. I think many bakers of real bread feel the need to differentiate their loaves and to distance themselves from those who churn out the indigestible article now masquerading as ‘bread’.

    In France, there’s the additional consideration that stifling bureaucracy confronts anyone setting out on any commercial endeavour, to the point where many prefer to work ‘on the black’ or beneath the government’s radar. I’m told that another option for those producing foodstuffs is to label your product ‘artisnal’. You can then make whatever it is in your unlicensed home kitchen and sell it with impunity. That may not be the official position, but then, much of what happens in France these days happens ‘unofficially’, so I have no reason to doubt that there’s a grain, at least, of truth in the matter.

  4. Anne Wallace says:

    I always equated the term “artisan” to mean “crafted ” using long fermentation, flours without additives, with an attention to the “art” of bread making and not the “$dough$” of fast, mass produced breads.

    Of course, anyone dedicated to baking, is worthy. I still respected the bakers regardless of their chosen path in the profession.

    Maybe the higher value we place on the style of breads that require more time, those we today call “artisan”, is being automatically shifted to the bakers making these type of breads? Are we elitists maligning “commercial” bakers? Or are we critical only of mass-produced supermarket products?

    Does choosing to bake “artisan” style bread confer greater “foodie” status automatically?

    Yes, perhaps there IS a danger that some “artisan” bakers may get an inflated sense of self-worth, basking in the name of their “artisan” bread. But, just like turning on faucet to test a repair, one bite of bread tends to speak for itself, revealing the labor of love, the skill, the integrity of the process.

    I’m not worried. Ultimately, we know what happens when, just like bread, egos rise too high. We have the chance to learn from our mistakes.

  5. Carlos says:

    Jeff… you are NOT an “Artisan” Baker…
    you are a MASTER Baker !!!

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