More Delicious Delicacies, Thanks to Tech

Sophisticated machines and automated processes are boosting the quality and quantity of artisan foods, and making them more affordable

Hundreds of years ago, Spanish pig farmers in the mountains of Andalusia developed a delicacy from their black-hoofed animals. Each winter, they slaughtered the pigs -- close kin to wild boars -- which had been fed only on acorns and then covered the meat with salt and stored it in the region's humid caves. As the seasons changed, so did the temperature in the caves, curing the ham to perfection -- over three years.

Today making the perfect Iberico ham -- and its less fatty cousin, Serrano -- is still an art. But it's accomplished using cutting-edge technology. Forget the mountain caves. Today, the hams are air-cured in pristine aging rooms that are climate- and temperature-controlled to mimic the seasons. Hams are stored at three or four degrees Celsius and 100% humidity in "winter." The temperature slowly rises to more than 30 degrees Celsius in "summer" before cooling to about 18 degrees in "autumn," when the hams are ready to eat.

During the first years of modernization, plants designated one room for each season and hams were moved every few months. Now, each room is controlled by a computer panel worthy of NASA and can create its own seasons, allowing more production in less space with reduced labor.


  It still takes from 18 months to three years to get a ham just right. But farmers can slaughter pigs year-round. And curing plants have proliferated throughout the Iberian peninsula, boosting production. According to trade group Consorcio Serrano, Spain's 1,200 producers now turn out 30 million hams each year, up from 20 million five years ago. Consorcio Managing Director Felipe Macias hopes that soon, Serrano hams will compete head-to-head with better-known Italian prosciutto and Parma hams.

Artisan food producers don't usually brag about their technical knowhow. After all, the Martha Stewart crowd buys specialty foods because, well, they're special. How special can they seem if machines, not humans, are behind the production? And yet technology is driving the specialty-food market, which recorded revenues of $25 billion in 2002, according to Market

Technology makes it cheaper, faster, and easier for small producers to turn out high volumes of artisan-quality jams, olive oils, and cheeses that otherwise wouldn't make it onto grocery shelves. And producing artisan foods is becoming big business: Despite a sluggish economy, sales of national gourmet grocery chain Whole Foods (WFMI ) rose 17%, to $1.65 billion, in the 28 weeks ending Apr. 13 (the latest data available), while its net income rose 27%, to $51.2 million.


  To meet the growing demand, even the most traditional producers are embracing technology. At New York City's Artisanal Cheese Center, which opened in May to distribute rare, delicate cheeses to restaurants and cheese aficionados, experts closely monitor temperature and humidity in their five high-tech cheese caves: Goats' milk cheeses are stored at 48 degrees and 80% humidity, while natural-rind cheeses, such as Spanish idiazabal and French gruyere, are stored at 50 degrees and 75% humidity. To prevent the cheeses from turning soggy, most of them are turned daily by staff members dressed in hair nets, plastic booties, and white lab coats. The rinds of some cheese are washed several times a week.

More important than climate, however, is the bacteria and microflora that experts cultivate in each room to help the cheeses ripen and develop rich flavors. Artisan cheese, unlike processed, pasteurized cheese found in most grocery stores, is alive, full of bacteria that break down fats and proteins and cast off organic compounds called esters, which are the foundation of good flavor.

"There's a war going on in each of the caves," says Max McCalman, the center's dean of curriculum and a maître-fromager for nearly a decade at hallowed New York restaurant Picholine. "We're creating a greater intensity of the right bacteria, microflora, and molds to help each cheese ripen better and more efficiently."


  McCalman refutes the idea that technology is undermining traditional artisan processes. "Through study, science, and skilled handling, we're once again giving cheeses the nurturing and respect they enjoyed for centuries," he says. McCalman's mission is already resonating: Open for just two months, the center boasts three dozen restaurant clients in New York, Florida, California, and Arizona. By yearend, it expects to ship 10 tons of cheese a month. Demand for artisan cheeses will help boost U.S. cheese sales 20%, from about $11 billion in 2002 to $13.2 billion in 2007, according to research firm Mintel International Group.

Technology is also improving centuries-old processes for making olive oil -- albeit slowly. Just ask Olivier Arrizzi, whose family owns a midsize olive farm 50 miles north of the French city of Aix-en-Provence. For 30 years, the Arrizzi farm used traditional presses to turn its oil harvest, generally 20 to 30 tons a year, into 5,000 liters of oil. The process, which involves crushing olives into paste between giant stone wheels, takes time. After the olives were harvested, they often sat in storage bins for up to eight days. Such long exposure to oxygen can hurt the oil's quality and limit its shelf life.

Then, several years ago, the Arrizzis installed a continuous press, which crushes the olives into paste, separates the paste from residual water with a centrifuge, and extracts oil without any human intervention. Olives now need to be stored a maximum of two days, which means that the quality -- and quantity -- of olive oil produced is greater. The Arrizzi farm now processes 100 tons of olives each year and produces five times as much oil as it could with its traditional press.


  Today, Arrizzi is bringing his knowledge to small producers around the world. As operations training manager for Olivier & Co., a global chain of specialty olive oil stores, he has helped small producers such as La Cenolyste, which produces just 400 liters of olive oil each year at its tiny farm outside of Nice, place their oil on American shelves.

Such high quality and variety has helped boost the already-booming demand for olive oil. Worldwide consumption jumped from 1.9 billion tons a decade ago to 2.6 billion in 2002. U.S. consumption has nearly doubled, from 104 million tons in 1992 to 196 million last year.

The demand for artisan food will only continue to grow. While Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO ) helped introduce high-end delicacies to the masses, technology is helping to deliver artisan-quality food to millions of Americans who heretofore had neither the desire nor the money to taste them. The marriage of technology and food, as Stewart likes to say, is a good thing.

By Jane Black in New York

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