Friday, September 5, 2014


It’s a unfamiliar feeling, the heat of today, as in Toronto we have our first scorcher of the summer…in early September. The kids are back in school, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and I’m dopey with the unaccustomed heat.

Since I last wrote, I’ve had the good news that my visa application for Azerbaijan has been approved. That means that I can fly to Baku, as planned, in late September, and from there explore a little of Azerbaijan before taking a bus into Georgia. I’m delighted. Autumn is such a lovely food time to travel. I’m especially looking forward to learning more about Georgian and Armenian “kompot”, thick fruit syrups, and also about Armenian technique for making vodka from fruit.

All these things when made by a home-cook or small crafts-person might be called “artisanal” foods. But that word, and a similar one, “rustic” have become so debased and mis-applied, it seems to me, that we should give them a rest for awhile. My friend Dawn the Baker (Dawn Woodward) and her husband Ed Rek of Evelyn’s Crackers make whole grain crackers by hand, with care. Those are “artisanally” made crackers. But the label is now applied to so many small-production foods and other products that it’s lost its value. Let’s just say hand-crafted? Or, when it’s appropriate “home-made”.

And then moving on to “rustic”, there’s a lot to be said. My friend Dina, who has read and bought cookbooks of every description for decades, was talking to me about this the other day. We were talking about the way “rustic” is sometimes used to describe a sloppy or crude-looking tart or cookie, or other food. “Rustic” does NOT mean made carelessly or without skill and sophistication. At least, it shouldn’t.

Country cooks, “peasant” cooks as many cookbooks refer to them, are those most likely to know their ingredients well and to be most reluctant to waste good food. So there’s nothing casual, and everything intended, about country cooking. And there’s great sophistication, in the sense of deep skilful knowledge, about how to get the most flavour out of ingredients. The word “rustic” originally meant, in the food context, not “chef-ed”, not loaded with sauces, and not part of the classic haute cuisine canon.

Why am I bothering to talk about this? I guess because the debasing of the term and idea of artisan is disturbing, and the misuse of both artisan and rustic involves a lack of respect for the skill and intention of the original.

Perhaps I am reacting to a certain kind of condescension. It’s an attitude that assumes that just anyone can work artisanally and that a rustic food is the product of less skill and attention and sophistication, rather as if rustic meant “produced by a crude cook.”

The next word I have in my sights is “organic”. But that’s for another day!

It’s time I went out to pick the remaining tomatillos (raccoons and/or squirrels stole some of them) and thought about supper. Chopped tomatoes, green salad, and leftovers from last night seem the best way to go in this heat, perhaps with some chilled white wine, or even the luxury of a gin and tonic, made with Fever Tree or another good tonic….


MC said...

I agree about artisan but I love the word "rustic". My grandma for instance made an apple "croustade" which I would be hard out to describe using another word. Basically a galette elongated and shaped like a kringle , it was buttery and delicious and the epitome of fall and, yes, it was rustic, that's what made it so magical to us city kids. Thinking back, I imagine centuries of French farmhouse baking went into it...

naomi duguid said...

I hear you MC. ANd the word "rustic" sounds really appropriate for that delicious sounding croustade. But it's most often applied to denote something rough and ready, not a creation made with intention and care.. Rustic is an unpretentious natural style, not ugliness and crudeness, but it's so often used for the latter...hence my complaint. Like that dread word "peasant" used as an adjective...