Sunday 29 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In my hand I am holding a small plate made of clay. It looks rustic, tough, and it is rough around the edges but I love it. It’s one of my favourite plates in our household. Inside this plate there is a cookie. A massive, gigantic, solid, chunky, mouth-watering cookie. This cookie is not just a cookie. This is a Rocky Bun. This is a Rocky Bun bearing the name Emma’s Country Cakes.

Like the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez whose favourite pastime apparently is to bite opponents on the football pitch, I, too, look forward to the moment when my teeth will sink into this solid mass of wheat flour, baking powder, sugar, margarine, vegetable oil, water, salt, egg powder, milk, mixed spice and sultanas. My mouth opens and...

The cookie crumbles.

The cookie. Crumbles. The massive, gigantic, solid-looking Rocky Bun crumbles and I’m left with little, middle and ring fingers holding the plate whilst forefinger and thumb keep the cookie from disintegrating totally. In my right hand I am holding a copy of the latest issue of Intelligent Life. To make it easier for you, readers and fellow bloggers, to understand what has just happened I will use the same example I used before. Imagine if Chiellini’s shoulder had dissolved entirely as Luis Suárez’ gnashers came into contact with it. There, I bet you have a better picture now. If only it were that easy to convince my erstwhile idol Diego Maradona of Luis’s excesses. But, alas, one can only hope so much!

Back to you, Emma. I wasn’t anticipating this. The reason why I chose your cookie was that it looked like the perfect companion for a leisurely Saturday evening sitting in front of the telly in between World Cup fixtures. Instead I have now crumbs all over my lap.

I know what you’re all thinking. Isis is advancing towards Baghdad in Iraq, they still haven’t found that missing plane in Malaysia, Asad is still holding onto power in Syria and the Ukraine-Russia stand-off shows no signs of abating. And yet, here is this idiot moaning about the consistency of a cookie. Goodness gracious me!

Let me come clear and say that it’s not Emma’s fault or her delicious, scrumptious cookies (yes, I ate it all and had “accidentally” my son’s as well. It’s all right, he doesn’t read my blog). It turns out I have been suffering from an “artisan” epidemic, a phenomenon brilliantly described by the writer Anthony Gardner in the latest issue of IntelligentLife.

In Anthony’s case it was the discovery of an artisan bakery in his north-west London patch that made him ponder over what he terms “Shoreditch-ification”, after the east London area that has come to symbolise hipster culture.

Craft or con?
Anthony traces the etymology of artisan and artisanal back to the 15th century. Originally from French, “artisan”, like its predecessors “ethnic” and “organic”, has come to represent a degree of sophistication that separates rather than unites. It’s not just the fact that my taste is more developed than yours (after all my loaf of bread costs three quid upwards), but my purchasing power is bigger. The irony is that we had an economic crisis only four years ago. Have we recovered that quickly?

The raison d’être of this renascent artisan culture (customised artisan bikes, for Christ’s sake, costing more than a thousand pounds) can be explained and seen through the prism of its diametric opposition to a market relying on mass-produced, soulless, nameless, sweatshop-dependent products. In a world of identikit merchandise some of us want our cakes to stand out. Hence Emma’s message to her followers:  I was a farm milk maid who had a dream of owning a business. With no money or business plan I began with a mixing bowl and wooden spoon in a tiny cottage using recipes from my childhood days on the farm. Years later we’re in a bakery with no conveyor belts or robots but lots of people making good old fashioned cakes.

The key words here are “childhood” and “old fashioned”. We’ve come round full circle. We might have iPads and smartphones but hanker for that touch of innocence that permeated our early years. The result is an industry that caters to our most individual whims whilst charging premium rates. As Anthony Gardner writes in his article of artisan shops, “Many other users of the word seem motivated less by high ideals than by the desire to jump on a lucrative bandwagon”. To sum up, the motivation might be noble, but the outcome is market-driven.

Personally, I don’t mind it that much. As I have often written on this blog, we, consumers, do have a choice. I want a new bike but you won’t see me paging through the pages of an artisan bike shop’s brochure because what they offer is out of my purchasing power. I love bread, homemade bread, bread made with a high degree of skilled labour, but I don’t see the need to pay three quid for a loaf.

As for Emma Country Cakes, guess where we buy them? Tescos’, or is it Asda? I've forgotten now. Yet, amidst so much sameness, they stand out. Her Rocky Buns might crumble whenever I do a Luis Suárez on them, but her Vanilla Fairies are to die for. And they are a bit more solid.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Some of the things that some of us are willing to pay premium rates for make me cringe. And fashions in food stuffs I find bizarre. (Most fashion I find a bit that way.)
    Rabbit was something we ate when times were very tough when I was growing up. If my father could catch one - we ate.
    And now, here at least, rabbit is a gourmet meat and I saw one being sold for nearly $50. And I doubt it tastes any better.

  2. A cleverly written piece, Cuban. I like the way your mind travels when writing.

    The price of bread is ridiculous, I'm thankful that I don't eat much of it. As for that Luis guy, I wonder if he approves of eye-for-an-eye treatment!! According to today's news there is another incident of biting, although the perpetrator isn't known. Are we returning to cannibalism do you think?

  3. I like good handmade cakes (even if they crumble) but there's a limit to how much I'm prepared to pay for them.

    As a seller on Etsy (the online home to small artisan crafters and makers) I know there is a natural premium on the handmade, processes take longer and overheads are higher for starters.

    As for Elephant's Child's comment about rabbit meat, apparently in edinburgh at least rabbits are difficult for butchers to source and their rarity value means they are more expensive.

  4. I love this image - how often have we (well, I suppose I ought to speak only for myself here) wished it weren't naff to put bibs on an adult!

    And you're right - we think we want something when we're told everyone else has it, even if we have to pay silly prices. It feeds the economy, we're told. Which is fine if it feeds us too, I suppose, but not if people have to borrow at crazy lending rates just to keep up with the latest gizmos, artisan or not.

  5. Thanks for your comments.

    Crafty, I'm familiar with etsy. I love it, although I don't sell on it. Well, I'm not an artisan! :-) But I know people who sell stuff on it and they sell good products at reasonable prices.

    What I've seen in the last four to five years, at least in London, is the emergence of a culture that could easily compete with the super rich, except that, they are not super rich. Whilst the latter still have their yachts and jets and jewellery shops and one-million-pound mansions in Kensington and Chelsea, this new artisan-driven market caters to an alternative consumer. They are usually middle-class, creative types who work on IT, multimedia, web development, music, art galleries and the like. They have disposable income which is why they can splash fifteen hundred quid on a customised bike. But in catering to that market, the new artisan shops price out people who would also enjoy their products and would most likely buy them for pleasure rather than for posing with said products.

    Is it real craft that lies behind this new artisan craze, or is it another con? You decide.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Emma’s Country Cakes sounds right up my alley. I think there is a direct correlation between the crumbleness of a cake and its taste :)

  7. Interesting read. I agree that the cost of 'artisan' food is out of reach of a lot of people. Best to make your own.

  8. Best to make ones own indeed, the cost is blah, way to high. Plus you never know who's touched them, spit on them, breathed on them, etc. haha nasty germs

  9. well i imagine the cookie tastes better than a shoulder...i like my cookies crisp, not soft, so...mmm....guessing someone may miss their cookie later, just saying...ha....

    interesting our conveniences to the back drop of all the chaos that is going on in our world right now...the games though have been a cool distraction...that shoot out yesterday, oh my....

  10. Love how the cookie crumbled and helped you connect all the pieces!
    Funny how we are so tempted to help the small "artisanal" business, the Mom and Pop store, paying whatever, just because deep down, one person, and not a big corporation, stood out from the rest, got to our need for connecting with our roots...

  11. Dejarte mis saludos en un domingo de calor con una buena galleta, un abrazo.

  12. Most enjoyable post. And the video enhanced it beautifully.

    “Shoreditch-ification"? Are they gentryfing dear old Shoreditch?
    My oh my ... I used to go to some good boxing matches in Shoreditch town hall, or was it the baths? So long ago, back in the early 60s when it was quite a tough area.

    Tommy Trinder (who remember HIM) there one fight-night acting as the auctioneer in the boxing ring for a charity. The 'Twins' Ronnie and Reggie were outbidding everybody on the stuff being sold by Tommy (You Lucky People) Trinder. I think they bid about £50 for a large bouquet of flowers (quite a decent sum then) and simply said "Send the flowers to the nurses home!" So, nobody was all-bad I guess you could say.

  13. Gee, I can'r believe no one else has said it yet: "That's the way the cookie crumbles." (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

    The prices some people are willing to pay for products, merely because they've got a certain label, or are the "latest thing" simply amazes me. What's even funnier is the lower cost store brand labels are very often made by the same exact companies that generate the high-dollar brands.

  14. I think for that reason, it's important to leave home and shop at local stores on a regular basis. Buying from local merchants not only supports them and helps them thrive, but it also allows you to get products you wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

  15. Well, that cookie sounds divine, crumbling or not. But a Vanilla Fairy sounds even better.

    I love how you refer to Luis Suarez; I'm guessing that you are not a Liverpool fan! You would be quite sad & maybe unable to joke about it just yet if you were. :)

  16. I'm not as sure about recovering so quickly, personally~ for most people~ but I am sure lots of people spend more than they have, consistently. However, I admire a finely crafted cookie as much as I admire a good Tennessee Williams family drama. ~Mary

  17. I love making my own...not only does it cost less, but I can also tailor them to my own cutting the sugar content in half and adding extra chocolate, for instance.
    Another added bonus to making your own is the fact that you know for sure that no one has dropped them on the floor, spat in them, or rolled them around in dirty hands!! ;)

    Happy Monday!:)

  18. Many thanks for your comments.

    Philip H, those are beautiful memories, sir. really enjoyed them.

    Kerry, you're right! :-) Not only not a Liverpool fan, but a Chelsea fan to boot. Did I mention we did the double on them this season? :-)

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Well that is the way the cookie crumbles. :) I am enjoying the local farmers' market, this summer. Lots of dense, heavy, interesting breads to try. Some good.. some crumbly.

    A fine post, as yours always are.

  20. As someone else noted a very clever, well-written post. I especially liked the way you worked Luis Suárez into the mix.

  21. A very clever post. I tend to be a bit of a sucker for artisanal food mainly because it is somewhat local and I want to support local workers , especially where I live-- in upstate New York where the economy is somewhat depressed. I think what people partly love is the sense of authenticity in a world that can be quite fake. My big question re the cookie-- margarine?!!! Vegetable oil? (Was it vegan?). What about good old fashioned artisanal butter!!!!???? This is a bit of a joke as I did not ever have butter as a child and still don't eat cookies much! Thanks for cleverness. K.

  22. Great connection to Suarez. I could sure go for some of those country cakes right now.

  23. So well written! I must say that the price of artisan bread is very high over here - even though it does taste wonderful!

  24. saw your pic and now I got hungry. Heading for the kitchen. :)

  25. Hmm, maybe if we offered Suarez an artisan cookie at half time, he'd refrain from biting his opponents. I will stop objecting to all the snacks parents are expected to provide for kids playing sports.

    At the moment, the player who has my adoration is the American goalkeeper Tim Howard. I lost track of how many goals he saved yesterday. It didn't matter than the team lost, that guy is a winner.

  26. You know I love to make my own cookies or cakes really is do different of others:)
    Ah and I dont like Suarez is a sick man I think!

  27. A familiar theme to anyone living round here. They have farmer's markets and even an annual Food Festival. When that happens there are huge traffic jams as people come to savour the organic cheese/bead/jam/ham/etc made by hand using local produce, traditional methods, etc.

    Fair enough. Me, I still think Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes.



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