Monday, February 4, 2008

Non-standard food product

These days, consumers are accustomed to highly-standardized food products. If you make two quite separate purchases of a foodstuff X, at two different stores, on two different dates, you generally expect to obtain quasi-identical products... except, maybe, in the case of fresh fruit and vegetables. That being the case, I find it almost an exciting privilege to discover that my favorite everyday cheese—a local variety of Saint-Marcellin—appears to be quite different from one week to the next, even though its name, packaging and price remain constant.

One week, it's soft and creamy [as in the above photo]. A week later, it can be hard and chunky. The taste, too, evolves slightly, while remaining essentially constant. [Fortunately, my Saint Marcellin never gets around to tasting like Norman camembert or Swiss gruyère!] I like to think that these variations reflect in fact the changing seasons and weather, which influence naturally the quality of the fodder on which the local cows are grazing.

It's funny to think that, while industrialists in most fields make huge investments in order to produce standardized goods, consumers can look upon the surprises offered by non-standard products, such as my cheese, as a latter-day luxury.

I'm reminded of an anecdote in a quite different domain: hand-weaving. Many years ago, a fashionable Parisian department store had decided to employ Breton craftsmen with their spinning wheels and handlooms for a marketing gimmick. After a day or so, however, the manager realized that there was an unexpected problem concerning a charming old fellow who spent his time carding wool from a greasy fleece in a wicker basket on the floor, and then spinning it into a fine regular thread. In fact, his woolen threads were so regular that they looked as if they might have been produced by a modern machine... and that, of course, was not what the customers were expecting. They wanted hand-spun wool to look as if it had been produced by hand... with lumps, knots and all the irregularities that you expect to find in this kind of old-fashioned production. When the manager asked the old guy whether he could maybe work a little more carelessly and roughly, the craftsman was rightly offended. He had spent all his adult life mastering the art of wool spinning, so that the quality of his work was now impeccable, and now he found himself face-to-face with an employer who was asking him to work deliberately in a sloppy manner!

I hope they don't get around to introducing sophisticated quality control, one of these days, at the local cheese factory.

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