When Camilla Barnard of cereal company Rude Health and I trekked up one frosty November's day to the opening of the School of Artisan Food we were both struck by
a) how good the SAF sausages were
b) how perfect a big block of stichelton was in lieu of canapes
c) how much tweed was in attendance (and what magnificent tweed it was)
d) how conspicuous the absence of London food writers, bloggers and journalists was
While I love nothing more than a good artisanal sausage and we both thoroughly enjoyed our day trip to SAF, I couldn't help think metropolitan foodies had missed a trick in not attending the opening.
My adopted homeland has a food heritage we should all be proud of, and I hope 2010 will prove to be the year British artisan food gets the credit it deserves. Central to the burgeoning renaissance of British artisan food will be the School of Artisan Food, a new project which Harry West my SOAS anthropology tutor is principal academic advisor of. Harry asked me to teach at the school when the diploma programme starts this September - a daunting task! - and I'll be doing my PhD fieldwork on the state of artisan bread in this country so I am embedded and therefore totally biased. Objectivity is certainly not part of my DNA when it comes to artisan food!
Why does a school of artisan food matter? I've had more than a few snide remarks from those who claim to love food that SAF sounds as if it will merely cater to posh twits with a seemingly unhealthy interest in posh twit (ie. artisan) food. Or give bored, rich housewives something to do in between painting their nails and bleeding their banker husbands' accounts dry. In a country still lamentably obsessed with class, an interest in food is curiously frowned upon - even by those who ostensibly love good food.
Suffice to say the mind boggled when I first arrived in 1999 to study in a country so class-fixated and snotty about food. I grew up spending summers foraging and fishing whilst helping my grandparents on their farm in western Norway. My parents firmly believe good food and commensality is essential to health and happiness, not to mention a good quality of life. It was inculcated in me from an early age that proper food is a right, not a privilege.
That's why the School of Artisan Food is so exciting: the first not-for-profit school of its kind in Europe which will teach the practical skills of baking, brewing, cheesemaking and butchery alongside business and management courses essential to creating a viable artisan food business. The academic component of SAF's diploma will give meaning and context to the artisan food world by teaching the history of industrialisation of food, terroir in the 21st century and food anthropology, amongst other subjects; luminaries from the food world such as Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy are involved in SAF, along with master baker Emmanuel Hadjandreou and butchery supremo Ray Smith from the River Cottage. This is not a school for romantics, but for those with fierce ambition and - excuse the pun - a real hunger for success in the artisan food business.
Whilst the diploma is a rigorous vocational degree that will train the artisans of the future in both the practical and academic skills they need, SAF also offers short courses such as the fundamentals of cheesemaking, basic brewing, game in a day, butchery and baking techniques, etc. The short courses are perfect for those of you keen beans who want to delve a little deeper into your favourite food subject but can't necessarily take the time off to do a full diploma. Go on, forget the expensive gym membership - spend your money on a mould and maturation course!
You don't have to be a nerdy fermentophile like me to be excited about this, though if you still have doubts check out Rose Prince's article on SAF in the Telegraph from last summer here, the Guardian dispatched Emma Sturgess to join a breadmaking class at SAF in the autumn, which you can read about here and finally if you remain unconvinced the New York Times features SAF in this piece "British Artisanal Food Gains New Champions"
As I've always maintained, what the world needs is more bakers, not bankers. Get thee up to SAF and find out for yourself why!
The School of Artisan Food Lower Motor Yard Welbeck Nottinghamshire S80 3LR
Phone: 01909 532171
Nearest train station: Retford (on the London King's Cross-Leeds line) train journey takes ca. 1 hr 40 minutes