Les Artisans – Craftsmanship


un artisan: artisan, craftsman
artisanal: hand-crafted, made by traditional methods, home-made

It is a great pity to see the small specialist shops disappearing as large companies increasingly make their presence felt. In France, the tradition of artisans—craftsmen and women— survives despite the proliferation of brands, retailers and restaurant chains.

To begin with, training for the profession of craftsman or artisan can start very early, at the age of about 14 years. The Compagnons du Devoir (literally “Companions of Duty”—a work brotherhood and community of practice) is the generic term for a number of French associations. These associations have their origins in the Companionship Orders that were founded at the time of the construction of the great cathedrals (in the 12th century). The Compagnons provide young people with training and experience in the traditional trades and crafts, based on an apprenticeship, a communal way of life, and travel around France. During this so-called Tour de France, the young apprentice gains experience working with a range of different professionals in their field such as a baker and pastry chef, saddler, upholsterer and fine leather craftsman, blacksmith, cooper, cobbler and boot-maker.

In the crafts relating to the food industry—les métiers de bouche—a high level of professional achievement is recognised by the award of the title meilleur ouvrier de France—“one of the best craftsmen in France”. This involves an Olympian level of training in order to pass the highest level examinations in ice-cream making, chocolate making and food preparation.

Other professions still demand abilities and know-how that cannot be learned simply through formal schooling, but require a handing down of skills through the family and years of experience that ultimately will make a difference in achieving work of great care and precision, with perfect mastery of the tasks involved.

In Monaco, an example of this is a family business managed today by the “grandson”, Jean-Claude Bonura. Established two generations ago by Jean-Claude himself making tooled leather belts of exceptional quality, today the business specialises in a range of fine hand-made leather goods. These belts have nothing to do with the laser-cut, clumsily glued and badly finished articles found in most large department stores.

What counts with these belts is the attention to detail: the quality of the leather selected from the best sources throughout the world (where the tanner’s trade is also passed down from generation to generation), the buckle and the hand-tooling. Infinite patience is required for the production of each article, so that in buying it, the purchaser feels they are about to possess a truly original object. This family does not count time in hours. It is no wonder that the family has been chosen as official suppliers to the Prince of Monaco.

It is essential to appreciate the creation and use of only the best products. Take, for example, les macarons—macaroons: a long and ancient tradition lies behind these little biscuits.  Created in a convent in France in the year 1791 by the Carmelite nuns who followed the principles promulgated by Teresa of Avila (who advised eating almonds as they were beneficial to women who did not eat meat—almonds being a rich source of vitamin B), these small delicacies have made their way through the passage of time to us today.

They were modified slightly in the 19th century by the head Pastry Chef at the Maison Ladurée, a famous pâtisserie and tea shop in Paris, who had the idea of sticking two biscuit shells together with a chocolate ganache filling on the inside. That was the beginning of the creation of a whole host of different flavours. In this temple of gastronomy, you can taste delicious and unique little pastries in the most wonderful setting. The ingredients are drawn from all over France: butter from Charentes, specially selected flour for each product from the Grands Moulins de Paris, and fruit from local producers.

As some-one practised in the food crafts, I am a fervent supporter and advocate of craftsmanship in all its forms. As we had brought the recipe for the famous macaroon with us, once our clients and students tried it, it was only a short time before people wanted us to run classes so they could learn how to make them. These pastry workshops are very popular and bring much joy to a whole range of students who also want to find out what it is that makes “the difference”, the quality and the noticeably better taste.

This is why I attach great importance to the quality of the product used (indeed, how could you not succumb to the superior taste and quality of almonds from Provence?), the know-how (the practice, the dexterity, resulting in creativity as well as a high quality finished product), respect for the product you are working on (a bœuf bourguignon cannot be rushed into and cooked in half an hour!), and the concern ultimately to achieve something perfect that will reflect your love for those with whom you wish to share what you have created.

In a world where some corporations try to impose uniformity on us, a small brave group puts up resistance to the invaders: these are the courageous craftsmen and women! It is up to you to support the artisans and their traditions and with them help to create a world of variety, good taste and quality.

By Beatrice Levanti





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