Once reserved for cheesemakers with alternative grooming habits and creative body art, the term “artisan” seems to be everywhere in Bangkok these days. Like “hipster”, which nowadays is considered a negative description in most Western countries, Thais tend to use the term admiringly, even though back in 2013, “artisan” made the New York Times’ list of “the most annoying, overused and abused words of the year.”
While the word itself may have been co-opted by all the wrong people selling all the wrong products – see Dominos Artisan Pizzas, Starbucks Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches, and Tostito Artisan Tortilla Chips – the concept has gained significant traction in Thailand, even if the definition is blurred.
Back when practically every person on the planet was a peasant, most things we owned and consumed were made by hand. The increasing industrialization of agriculture and food preparation drew a reaction from people who decided the old ways were better, and now every hipster foodie is an urban peasant. Unlike the peasants of old, however, they are willing to pay substantially more for foods with an artisanal pedigree.
This small but well-heeled market thrives in Bangkok, with new artisanal brands popping up all the time. A look at the proliferation suggests that the pillars of the foodie diet are bread, meat, cheese, coffee and booze.
The star of the Bangkok baker’s guild, Maison Jean Philippe, follows a simple philosophy: use only the finest French flours, French butter, salt, and other ingredients available. Jean Philippe and his business partner Tom Kirk distribute freshly baked loaves to roughly 40 outlets in Bangkok. Jean Philippe says, “You cannot just call yourself an artisan in France as it has a legal meaning. But what we’re doing here is just the same as we would do in France.”
From the Anglo angle, Michael Conkey of Conkey’s Bakery adheres to a similar creed, handcrafting bread using traditional techniques for improved flavour, aroma, and texture. Conkey’s baked goods make a regular appearance at the peripatetic Bangkok Farmers Market.
Joe Sloane of Sloane’s Sausages left his job as an executive chef at a five-star hotel to start making sausages in his backyard. Today, his professional kitchen produces handmade charcuterie from headcheese to blood sausage. Joe claims that his products are not only full of flavour, but also ethical and sustainable. A batch of Sloane’s bacon takes two weeks to make.
Also making his mark is Steve Craig of The Accidental Butcher. Since 2013 Craig has offered a choice of premium-grade, pasture-fed Angus and Wagyu in any of several cuts, along with lamb rump, all imported from Australia and guaranteed hormone-free. Aged cuts are occasionally available, and Craig is happy to consider requests for other special orders. A recent addition to the traditional butchery is free-range kurobuta pork from Black Berkshire pigs raised in Chiang Mai.
Since 2008 Reinhard Matheis and Chanida Sitthikeson of Heaven On Cheese have produced lovely small rounds of double brie, truffled brie, munster, reblochon and camembert in Nakhon Sawan. In Bangkok their full line of cheeses is available at Opposite Mess Hall and Gourmandises Cafe & Bakery at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park. The couple used to make sausages and home-cured, cold-smoked bacon, as well, but recently turned their focus solely on producing high-quality cheese.
To wash down these delicious artisanal meats and cheeses, you’ll need a good lashing of spirits, and fortunately Thailand has three brands that fall into the handmade, high-quality category. Chalong Bay Rum, based in Phuket, crafts 100-percent natural rum from pure Thai sugarcane juice using traditional French distillation methods.
Another island distillery, Magic Alambic Rum on Samui, produces plantation-style rum using fresh-squeezed Thai sugarcane rather than molasses (as in most of the Caribbean) and a traditional French alembic. The aromatic rum also comes in versions flavoured with pineapple, lemon, orange, or coconut.
The third, and most Thai, of the handmade boutique liquors available is Chiang Mai-based Niikki Pure Spirit, an ultra-refined distillation of 100-percent organic rice sold in a clear glass bottle emblazoned with a logo designed by well-known Thai artist Thaiwijit Poengkasemsomboon. Owner Nikolaus Prachensky says Niikki Pure Spirit contains zero methanol, a by-product of fast-and-cheap distilling methods that leads to hangovers.
“Ours carries a slight fragrance of jasmine rice with a very clean flavour profile similar to vodka,” he says. In the future, Prachensky hopes to produce a pure rice vodka and a natural rum. His rice spirit is available in five-star hotel bars around Thailand as well as at select supermarkets.
Coffee was one of the first and most successful artisanal products to become widely available in Thailand, due in large part to the fact that it is easily transported and stored. Four years ago Varatt Vichit-Vadakan started roasting beans in a large German-made Giesen on the premises of his Roast Coffee & Eatery, one of the early occupants of SeenSpace in Thonglor. His roasts were so popular that he soon opened Roots Coffee in a separate location and began supplying beans to other cafes around the country. On weekends Roots is open to bean-heads who want their fix direct from the source.
Meanwhile at Brave Roasters, Ekameth ‘Tay’ Witvasutti cooks a modest 100 kilos of coffee each month, including three single-origin coffees from Doi Saket and Chom Thong in Chiang Mai province, as well as imports from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Guatemala. Brave Roasters supplies a number of cafes in Bangkok, including Casa Lapin outlets, Gallery Drip Coffee and his own One Ounce for Onion.
“The general techniques involved in roasting the beans and making coffee are not so difficult to master,” says Tay, “but creating really excellent coffee requires an obsessive artisanal approach.”
Many of these products turn up at the Bangkok Farmers Market, which convenes every third weekend of the month at Gateway Ekamai and sometimes at other locations such as Jam Factory. Along with artisanal foods, the community market also offers handmade clothing, jewellery, and other arts and crafts.
Spring Epicurean Market, held on the last Sunday of every month on the lawn of Spring Summer Restaurant, offers its own collection of artisan-marketed foods, including pure fruit smoothies and juices, free of artificial flavours, colours, preservatives, chemicals, dairy, or sugar from Twist.
The similar Thailand Farmer’s Market is held on the second weekend of the month at K Village.
Bangkok’s “farmers” markets (we’ve never actually seen a farmer at one) are worth visiting to find smaller artisanal brands that aren’t well distributed elsewhere, such as My Job Is Pate (soups and mushroom pate, tel 08 1809 8555) and Guten Appetit! (homemade German sausages, tel 08 1855 7800).
If you’re too lazy to make the farmers markets you can call Passion Delivery to arrange for the delivery of more than 200 high-quality artisan food products. Orders are sent out within 48 hours, and you can choose from such suppliers as Sloane’s, Accidental Butcher, Conkey’s Bakery, Maison Jean Philippe, My Iberico Spanish Delicatessen, Homemade Cheese Co, Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat and more. Craft beers and ciders can also be ordered from Passion Delivery.
For more information on Thailand’s leading artisanal food producers and outlets, visit the following:
By Joe Cummings