The specialized skills of artisans and craftsmen have been honored and revered since time began. In Italy around the time of the Renaissance, guilds formed to control and protect their crafts and trades, and market their collective reputation for quality spurring similar efforts around the world. But recently in our age of mass production and consumerism have we begun to realize the importance of the craftsman, and market the idea once again as a reminder for us to get back to the basics, where it all began.
The words authentic, handcrafted, organic, and artisan certainly hit our heart strings. We trust they mean better quality, support of local economies, and hope the product is healthier and more natural, right? But lately, these words have started to feel more like marketing buzzwords. It's difficult to be well-informed when information is coming at you from all sides and much of it from special interests. It's confusing and hard to know what to believe. Why should we care whether something is handcrafted or not? Doesn't it just mean more expensive? Isn't the Pier 1 store down the street local, and selling authentic goods from around the world?
The answers aren't easy to come by, or easy to live with, but my recent travels to Tuscany helped me understand so much more about doing my part, and maybe it'll help you too. I'd like to introduce you to seven producers we met in Italy. Artisans who create their products with an added dose of passion and inspire us to live our lives more informed and aware of what and how we consume.
The Producers... & Why They're Important
You'll find livestock farms throughout Italy raising sheep and goats for wool, but none more adorable than at Nora's cashmere goat farm in Chianti.
She raises and processes the wool from her white and colored goats to take advantage of all of the beautiful nuances available in un-dyed cashmere fiber. Meeting Nora and her goats means sitting in the field on a warm day while they play, feeding them from a bottle, and you can even help out during combing season!
REASON #1: Authenticity - For starters, handcrafted items are authentic to the area of production. You want products that are unique and not the same ones that 20,000 other people have, right? Handcrafted items are typically one-of-a-kind with little touches only you or the artisan can add. They're not processed or made by machines so each piece will have its own unique characteristics.
People have a love/hate relationship with their food when it comes to animals. Carnivores love it, vegans hate it (and us for consuming it). It can be difficult to own the idea of eating meat, so we soften it by calling it something else. Cow becomes hamburger, pig becomes pork. Maybe that's why so many middlemen have been added and accepted in its production.
A visit to a low-density farm in Maremma takes you back to the basics of meat production in a humane and inspiring way.
REASON #2: Health and Safety - And when it comes to our food, its even more important to know where it comes from and how it's made. Why? Because you are what you eat. We live in an age of corporate farming, subsidized crops, heavy use of pesticides and antibiotics, and food production for profit. We want food to look pretty - plump, unblemished, and as close to perfect as we think it should be. Add that to the fact that governments around the world all label food a little differently - or not at all - leaving consumers to essentially eat at their own risk.
You can smell the aroma of leather when you step off the quiet side street into his Florence bottega. It feels a bit like time has stopped completely. Dimitri, a master leather craftsman, holds on defiantly to the traditional Florentine ways. And his customers carry his story with them wherever they go.
REASON #3: Quality - Places like Pier 1 and World Market (some of my favorite stores by the way) sell handcrafted items that are so mass produced they can supply every store around the world with exactly the same handcrafted things. So either the craftsmen are working at lightning speed, machinery is used to make the majority of the item with handcrafted 'finishing', or both. Either way, the quality suffers. There's no other way the store can sell it so inexpensively and still make huge profits. Quality, hand-crafted products start with sourcing quality materials, so you know the resulting product will be unique and well-made. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.
Everyone in the small Chianti town of Mercatale knows Beppe, the baker you go to for everyday staples and holiday favorites. He's been baking here for 38 years.
And for an extra special experience, take a quiet walk with him through the vineyards at sunset. The adventure turns into so much more when he breaks out the wine, traditional biscotti, and schiacciata con l'uva - a yummy flatbread with fresh sangiovese grapes from the vine.
REASON #4: Green - Handcrafted products are generally green. Work done by hand takes less energy than a mass production assembly line, which makes it more environmentally sustainable. This is particularly true if the commercial good is produced overseas and needs to be shipped a long distance to reach the consumer.
From the vine to the bottle, winemaking is one of the world's leading industries - the expert analysis of it alone being its own vocation! There's a lot of wine being made in the world ranging in taste from putrid to transformational. So what makes a great bottle of wine?
We met the winemakers at two unique Chianti-area wineries who tend their vines with such passion and enormous respect for the soil you'd think Mother Earth herself was Chief Winemaker. And you'd be right.
Giovanna and her family live in the centuries- old former convent at Pacina whose vines have been tended since 900AD in Etruscan times. Her great-grandparents bought the estate that her family tends today, where she relys on traditional methods of vine cultivation and organic wine production to make outstanding Chianti Colli Senesi wines.
Marco uses biodynamic methods to produce the sophisticated wines at Podere Erica, restoring and revitalizing the soil, and working in concert with nature in a way that's best for the ecosystem. From the initial planting of the vines to the aging process, his biodynamic method results in elegant, earthy wines which are true to both tradition and terroir.
REASON #5: Appreciation - Only when you see production firsthand, can you truly appreciate the time, love, and labor involved in the process - whether we're talking about winemaking or the cobbling of shoes. It takes time. Getting to know the process - the maker's story behind the product - adds so much to your appreciation of the product itself, you'll be happier with your purchase and so will they.
A random block of wood transforms before our very eyes. Chips fly, skilled hands carve this way and that, and Giorgio turns the block into something pure - sometimes useful, sometimes decorative, but always beautiful.
From utilitarian wood bowls, platters, and cutting boards, to a fancy olive wood vessel, his creations are crafted straight from the heart.
REASON #6: Fair Trade and Wages - This is important! When you buy from local producers, your choice not only supports them but also their local economy and not some corporate entity in another part of the world. The wage you pay them stays local. By purchasing locally crafted products, you discourage the child/slave labor and wages that are so often used to create cheap knock-offs. Indentured servants around the world are paid pennies a month - a month! Yes, this happens. But the good news is our choices can lead to a better world. Isn't that worth paying for?
Where to Find The Real Producers?
So how do we find the artisans who spend their life mastering their craft? The vintners, butchers, woodworkers, growers, and craftsmen. Whether they're producing food and wine, or the clothes and other items we wear and use everyday, their hands alone control the process. Since their focus is on their craft, they generally can't afford to advertise loud enough for us to hear. Sometimes it's best to rely on the experts to help you, people who live where the producers live, and know the work they're doing. People like Arianna and Alessio who live in Chianti and devote themselves to finding authentic producers and artisans - slow travel experiences that are authentically Tuscan. As the owners of Km Zero Tours, they find the very best Italy has to offer visitors who seek a deeper, more enriching travel experience.
It can be tough to tell what's truly crafted by hand these days, let alone where exactly it's crafted - and how do you really know what you're getting? Our recent time in Italy spent with our new friends played a big part in helping me understand how my choices can be a small but effective cog in the system that ultimately helps local producers become the new norm and not the exception. It goes much deeper than pretense or exclusivity. Buying local, handcrafted food and other items not only means supporting the expert producers and their resources, but sustaining ourselves in the process.
If You Go
Km Zero Tours - If you think this kind of slow travel experience is just what you're looking for and want to meet these and other Tuscan producers for a more enriching flavor of Italy, contact Arianna through their website, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your thoughts? Does "handcrafted" matter to you?