With food – and drink, for that matter – the term ‘artisan’ is often in the eye of the beholder. Unlike ‘organic’ – for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established national standards – there’s no official definition for artisanal production. But chefs, food buyers and specialty retailers say our taste buds can tell the difference.
“Artisan is synonymous in many ways with high-quality, small-batch [food and beverage]. It’s not homogeneous; it allows for personality,” says Greg O’Neill, co-owner/co-founder of Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine (2945 North Broadway Street). He and business partner Ken Miller operate three European-inspired shops.
“The great majority of our products are from smaller-scale producers, where a large portion of production is done by hand,” explains Mr. O’Neill. Products like specialty goat- and sheep-milk cheeses from Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign; seasonal fruit-and-herb preserves and syrups from Quince & Apple in Madison, Wisconsin; and hand-crafted salumi from Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis, Indiana. “The key is you want to bring in products that have more distinction, nuance or quality of flavor. In our case, we really want to know the story behind the products and those who make them.”
That’s why, on April 12, the retailer will host the 4th Annual Pastoral’s Artisan Producer Festival at the Chicago French Market with free product tastings and demos from 90 artisan producers of everything from cheese to candies to spirits.
Speaking of tastings, Eataly (43 East Ohio Street) is a massive, two-floor emporium dedicated to fine food and drink, not to mention books and accoutrements to help you digest and enjoy them. It’s one of 26 worldwide and two in the U.S., and here’s just a few of the artisanal products you’ll find there: breads baked in-house using organic flour from Wild Hive Community Grain Project, grown in New York’s Hudson Valley exclusively for Eataly; hand-rolled butter from third-generation Farmhouse Kitchens in LaCrosse, Wisconsin; and ales crafted solely for Eataly through a partnership with Delaware brewery Dogfish Head and Italy’s Baladin and Birra Del Borgo.
“Most of the signs around the store are about educating consumers,” says Eataly New York buyer Andy Marcelli, who’s responsible for procuring U.S.-based food, wine and beer. “It’s less about us and more about [the producers] and how we use their products. We want our customers to know what ingredients we use and where they came from. Knowing who made it – whether you meet them in person or hear us tell their story – you feel more connected.”
It’s a bit ironic that there seems to be an inverse correlation between our hyper-connected, high-tech lives and our desire for food and drink that recalls a much simpler time. We’re so quick to snap photos of our farmers’ market buys and restaurant meals, posting them on Pinterest and Instagram, all the while celebrating their rustic roots. But Mr. O’Neill feels it’s not contradictory. “Technology allows you to look at the website of a family farm in northern Vermont you never would have heard of otherwise,” he explains.
Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar (626 North State Street) takes artisan to a whole other level, actually producing in-house the Italian-style salumi and many cheeses served at the always-bustling, retro-inspired downtown eatery. Executive Chef/Managing Partner John Coletta even brought a salumi specialist from Italy (who hand-stitches the casings) aboard to do the meat marinating and handcrafting. He also buys pre-ground meats from small-scale Midwestern producers, and a massive white Salumeria counter in the middle of the dining room boasts a red, hand-cranked Berkel slicing machine that readies these delicacies for antipasti plates inspired by Italian regional favorites.
From almost-creamy duck prosciutto to sinfully rich house-made burrata (served with roasted beet salad) to both cow- and goat-milk ricotta (served with a wild arugula salad and on a wood-fired Campania pizza), Chef Coletta and team transport diners from downtown Chicago to Old World Italia by way of these artisanal ingredients.
“It’s all part of trying to go back to things we got away from…we’re doing what has been practiced for hundreds of years [in Italy],” says Chef Coletta. “When you’re able to experience foods that are natural, fresh and sustainable, they tend to be more satisfying. There’s such an awareness of food today that people realize: you are what you eat.”