The most delicious, honest and truly gourmet foods are handcraft foods. What I mean by handcraft is that they are created by artisans in small batches, not mass-produced or highly processed, and made from ingredients that are locally-grown or locally-produced. Cheeses made by a small local creamery with milk from local farms is an example of a handcrafted food. Artisan beers made by small brewers is another. So are home-grown organic vegetables. The sterility of mass production is absent and, although each piece may vary in its characteristics, the flavor and quality is unique and infused with the personality of the creator. Handcrafted foods are a temporal piece of art. They are carefully brought into being through skilled hands guided by rich tradition and experience.
I began to understand the quality and richness of handcrafted foods when I ate in small restaurants in more rural areas of the country. Unlike restaurants in big cities, where there is an abundance of choice in the types of produce, spices, meats and beverages from all around the world, the smaller eateries in more far-flung locales have to look locally to find their ingredients. Care, selection, affection and love of the art can be lavished on a dish that is simply not possible or economically feasible with mass produced foods. The quality and rarity of the experience that a handcrafted food course gives transcends eating, going into the higher realms of enjoyment and pleasure. Handcrafted foods create a connection between the local environment, the artisan (the cook) and the patron.
The best ravioli I have ever enjoyed (and perhaps will never forget) was in a small seasonal restaurant on the rugged and remote North Shore of Lake Superior. It was early spring (mid-May, just before tourist season) when I spent several days at a lakeside cabin resort. I stopped into a small tourist’s store and chatted with a local behind the counter about where I was from and what it was like there. She seemed genuinely interested in me and suggested that if I was looking for somewhere to eat, that I should go to this restaurant down the road at mile marker such-and-such. I would not be disappointed, she assured…and besides, there were few other choices for at least a dozen or more miles beyond. I went. There, I found a modest, but nice, restaurant that grew their herbs as landscape. Occasionally, someone from the kitchen would appear to clip some needed leaves for a menu order. The waitress, also listening to my travel log, suggested the ravioli. I ordered it without hesitation. When it arrived, I immediately knew that this would be a dish I would long remember. It was handcrafted. The ravioli had been cut from fresh pasta dough. The filling was made from locally-grown and recently-harvested asparagus, which whispered back through the sauce. The fresh-picked herbs were carefully balanced and used with experienced restraint. Delicate flavors were at work here and they needed to be complimented, not conquered. On top of the ravioli were miniature morel mushrooms, which had been harvested from the dense boreal woods on the adjacent mountain slopes. Their earthy flavor and texture were a rare indulgence one could not find in the finest restaurants and were only available for a few days. This dish was a product of the local soil, the region’s very short season and an experience artist who had mastered the delicate and transient palette. Had I arrived a couple of weeks later, this same dish could not be enjoyed at any price.
I had another memorable experience with a handcrafted dish recently. A couple of weeks ago, I was passing through a small southern Wisconsin town whose primary “industry” is their sole, relatively small (by even state standards) creamery. I had eaten there before and had a fresh garden salad with blue cheese dressing. The cheese had been made on the premises and had a flavor that was delicate, yet wonderfully mild and sharp at the same time. Ever since, I have measured every blue cheese dressing against it and none have come close. This time, however, the inornate menu offered the common macaroni and cheese. I was sure that here, it would be elevated to high art. This dish not sitting in a warmer hoping to be called upon, but made to order from four different types of cheeses that had been created on the premises with milk from local farms. It was phenomenal; incredibly creamy, flawlessly balanced flavor and sharpness. The pasta was almost irrelevant- serving as the supply vehicle for the wonderful sauce. Who else but a creamery could create such a dish? But, unexpectedly, the dessert followed suit. It had to be apple pie, since the new crop of apples were in. The local apples were combined with local black walnuts and spices, piled four inches deep in a just-made crust that fell away in delicate crumbles at the slightest touch. Wow. Again, all apple pie I will ever eat will be compared against it.
While finishing the pie and feeling rather sad that it will be a long time before I can enjoy that macaroni and cheese again, I realized that I had just enjoyed a meal that was more genuinely gourmet than anything one could have ordered from a menu in the finest restaurants. After all, gourmet is more than a cook’s concoction, it is also the integrity and pedigree of the ingredients. The richest of food experiences are those that are handcrafted from farm to restaurant. One need not look in the most glamorous cities or most acclaimed restaurants or stores to find the best foods. Look to the farmers, local markets and craft foods. There you will find a quality and depth that will bring a new level of enjoyment into your food experiences.