Not according to my friend’s sister, an opinionated artist who says automated machines make goods cheaper, faster and more consistently. She says, “Why would anyone want to pay more for handmade? You can’t even tell the difference.”
She has a point.
But, as a result we live in a disposable society. There are incentives to buy new cell phones only after a year. We are forced to retire capable computers that can’t run the latest software. A very successful Swedish company sells great furniture that is destined to be seen on the curb awaiting trash day. All are just a small sample of items produced on a huge scale.
It wasn’t always this way. I have a couple of 100 year old pocket watches that are still keeping time and cameras from the ’40’s that are clicking away to prove it. These garage-sale-gems were built in a era where things were made to last, often for a lifetime.
When did we suddenly move away from owning objects for decades? Are we better now for it? Or does it make these things inferior?
These are some questions I asked myself after speaking to Sarra in her studio at the Distillary. (I found a recent video (click here) on Toronto Standard showing the behind the scenes of her unique textile business). I was blown away by her dedication and passion to her craft.
Let’s throw out the debate for now as we won’t solve it here. But rather focus on the gratification of supporting driven artists and the items they choose to make. Whether it be a handbag, a piece of cheese, or in our case, crackers. It just may inspire others to do the same.
I recently met Sophie the lead miller, grain tester and bread baker for La Milanaise at a restaurant in Montreal. This impassioned young woman approaches milling organic grains like none other. In her test kitchen, she studies the properties of grains from the field to the oven. In a buzzing hot-spot in downtown Montreal, over small pates of house-cured meats and good French wine, she explained to me how she brings her bread to restaurants rather than eat theirs. It becomes a show-and-tell to the waiters and chefs how heritage grains react to moisture and the benefits to longer fermentation, making huge improvements to texture and flavor.
We spoke a little about her experience with gluten-free. Even though chickpea flour makes beautiful dough, Sophie believes the gluten-free trend is coming to an end and focus is now on ancient grains.
Some of these first cultivated crops have natural gluten levels and the uncanny ability to adapt to all types of growing conditions. She explains the plant naturally wants to survive, even thrive. She explains few of the heritage wheats can be planted both in spring and winter. It just adapts. Where the crossbred grains tend to show instabilities after seven years, which is not good for farmers who are trying to establish their crop. (Huge benefits here!)
As vital as gluten is for many bakers it still can be a source of extreme discomfort for individuals with celiac disease and should not be taken lightly. For them it certainly is not a trend but an un-welcomed medical condition and can be a difficult way of life. A life limited by their food choices and a blind trust that something labeled gluten-free, is exactly what it says.
Growing and eating more ancient grains is the final cog in the wheel to raising awareness of the good sustainable food movements. By now most of us understand the impact of poor animal husbandry, unappetizing caged chickens and feedlot cattle. It’s also clear to imagine the negative effect of fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides and herbicides effecting the natural habitat of bees, insects and contamination of ground water. What’s harder to see is is how modern wheat is bred to fit into the form of large scale farming. Ancient and heritage grains can offer everything this wheat cannot.
With heritage grains and a dedicated miller, the artisan baker is most happy. When we get our weekly flour delivery a wonderful mixture of smells of toasted grass and warm earth floats through the kitchen. At the market, my eyes light up when someone asks me about our cloth bags filled with Red Fife wheat. I’ll hold up the bag and say, “Here, smell!”
Heritage grains may be the final cog in the wheel of the good food and sustainable farming movements. These special grains were bountiful leading up to the 1900’s and vital to westward settlements in North America. They were grown for their adaptability, nutritional value, animal feed and fermented for spirits.
By the 1950’s the population transitioned from rural to urban communities, therefore changing the direction of food and farming. At the same time, micro-food communities were pushed aside by large agri-businesses and huge food chains monopolized hybridized wheat and limited the choices for the increasing number of the suburban consumers.
Striving for the quick and convenient, food became overly processed and shelf-life won out over nutrition. Slowly these older varieties of grains, and much of the food our grandparents and great grandparents ate, became harder and harder to find.
In the past 10-15 years, however, a new generation of farmers and advocates are finding ways to revitalize our food choices. Similar to the environmental movement of the 1970s, smart, dedicated individuals such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin offering insights for consumers and leading them away from foods grown on industrial farms. Huge online campaigns are forming (Top 20 local food advocates on Twitter link) where conscience eaters are demanding nutrient dense food grown by sustainable farms.
As a result, it is becoming easier to understand the cost of industrial farming. Fruits and vegetables growers who use pesticides, fungicides and herbicides disturb the natural habitat of bees and contaminate of ground water. Documentaries are exposing poor animal husbandry that result in unappetizing caged chickens and sick feedlot cattle. What’s harder to see is is how modern wheat was bred to fit the needs of large scale farming.
Heritage grains can offer everything that industrialized wheat cannot.
1. Whole Grain Nutrition. The outer layer of the grain contain most of the nutrients and when freshly milled it has a wonderful taste and texture. (Enriched white flours are an indication that the good stuff has been removed.)
2. Sustainability. These older varieties adapt to their growing conditions. Seeds don’t have to be purchased from outside the farm they can be planted each year collected after harvest. Hybridized grains tend to lose vitality with a shorter life-cycle. Heritage grains are an asset that stays on the farm, year after year.
3. Diversity. Food mono-cultures dominated by a single seed species can inhibit long-term agricultural diversity. Growing buckwheat, rye, barley, durum and spelt can offer so much more than a single crop of dwarfed wheat. The soil benefits greatly with crop rotation and seed variety. Nutrients remain in the soil, which lends itself to organic farming and offer more variety in our diets.
Heritage grains connect us to a time were micro food communities were the only option, where you knew the person who grew your food, or you grew it yourself. We have the unique benefit of living in modern cities with modern conveniences that can offer connections to these special grains through a new breed of committed farmers. CIPM and K2Mill are our main grain suppliers. Look for heritage grains at farmers markets, through subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture, food artisans and at farm-gate sales. Currently, we are using buckwheat, rye, durum, red fife wheat and spelt all grown and milled in Ontario.
(We will be creating a page to post your favorite whole grain recipes soon.)
Red Fife Wheat
A land race wheat that acclimates well to many growing conditions. This sweet nutty tasting heritage grain can be planted in spring, or winter. The “Queen” of wheats, she is grace under pressure-whatever you ask of her. From sweet to savory, bread to pastry, she delivers.
Flaky, nutty, sweet-natured, not too dependable, changes her mood all the time.
Like a bass player in a band. Over looked but necessary. Plays in the background but adds structure and backbone.
Hardcore. Black and white. No soft edges. Has a love, or hate personality, no in between.
Grumpy grandpa, off putting and difficult at first, but you grow to love it. Likes to be treated a certain way. Then it will be nice.
A rural unpaved road. Rough and bumpy. Always there. Part of the landscape. Will eventually take you where you need to go.
Evelyn’s Crackers participated in the Kneading Conference again this year. Co-teaching three workshops with Naomi Duguid: Crackers, Tandoor Baking and Grain Tasting was like a homecoming seeing many of the familiar faces of fellow lecturers and attendees. The conference draws some of the best talent in bread baking, oven building and anything related to dough or grains (even rice this year) making the event one not to miss.
We owe thanks a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement. The first Kneading Conference was held in July of 2007 in the heart of Somerset County,
“where wheat production fed over 100,000 people annually until the mid-1800′s. Reviving wheat varieties that succeed in Maine’s climate is not only a realistic goal, but a critical one in light of rising transportation costs and the recognition that food security must rely on local farms. By bringing together the diverse stakeholders who collectively can rebuild lost infrastructure and create demand for local and regional grain systems – farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, wheat researchers – on-the-ground plans take shape. In Maine, the Kneading Conference has been the impetus for start-ups amongst a growing cluster of grain related businesses.” http://kneadingconference.com/
Multiple workshops were going on simultaneously and the images below capture only a fraction of the offering from the Kneading Conference. The open venue is airy and relaxed. One can mingle from one class to another and serves as a model for the Kneading Conference West coming up in September near Seattle, Washington and other agricultural areas interested in reviving local farming heritage.
Sour dough bagels waiting to be baked for a few minutes before being flipped.
Stretching the dough before baking it in the Tandoor.
A few years ago we discovered an endangered heritage wheat (Red Fife), that became the canvas of our creativity and a gateway to the farmers markets. Evelyn’s Crackers is in our 5th year and can still be found at several farmers markets in Toronto. Our crowning achievement was representing Canada at the Slow Food Conference in Italy and being recognized for our advocacy of heritage grains and establishing a link from grower to consumer. We realize being recognized at the global level for our dedication is an honor, but more importantly it raises awareness of these forgotten grains and provides initiatives for growers, millers and food artisans to use them. Each year more farmers markets are forming and for vendors to continue to make long term commitments there needs to be a more focus on the ability of the farmers markets to grow small businesses.
Within our first season at the farmers market we were contacted by a local butcher to merchandise our crackers based on their customer requests. To sustain our business, especially during the off-market season, we have to sell to retailers. The costs associated with wholesaling are much more and the margins are much less. For example, if I have 10 stores that order $100 every month that is $1000. 50% is the cost to make the crackers, the labels, packaging, bar-code and nutritional analysis. That does not factor in the cost of delivery, or any credits that would be given for breakage or expiration, not to mention chasing down past due invoices, or the possibility of not being paid due to insufficient funds. Some retailers will not pay before 60 days, therefore greatly affecting cash flow. The exposure in stores raises the awareness of the brand but there are many more costs involved.
To generate significant revenues you are looking at at least 200 accounts. That number of stores requires a distributor who takes up to 35%, on top of the 40-60% of the retailer takes drives up the retail price significantly. It doesn’t take long to see the pressures within the industry to source cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make up for these extra costs. To continue using heritage grains grown organically and nearby we offset these extra costs by delivering to stores ourselves and selling at farmers markets.
It takes 2-3 years to establish a following, however the benefits to selling at farmers markets is the ability to build a brand, have instant feedback and to experiment with flavors and methods of production. We offer many more items at the farmers markets than we ever would through our retail partners. Our margins are better and we can connect and sell directly to consumers. Ironically, our application was rejected for at a new market starting its second season this year because a few of our crackers are being sold in a retail store nearby. Their reasoning, “You are too big for the market.”
There are significant failures to see the importance of farmers markets it’s ability to sustain small businesses. There is a failure to understand the food system and how it relates to the small producer and the challenges associated with competing with the agri-industry for prices and market share. Farmers market vendors should be encouraged to wholesale. You cannot build a local food economy one day a week, 5 months out of the year. The farmers market needs to move beyond the impulse buy because small businesses can make an impact. To date, Evelyn’s Crackers has purchased over 3 tons of Ontario grains. There is serious disconnect when our limited success strikes against us.
New farmers market organizers are missing opportunities to look beyond the market. They are getting caught up in surveys instead of being leaders and working towards a long term vision and creating a market identity. Not very often someone with “skin in the game,” or vendors making a living in the farmers markets are part of the decision process, or creating priorities of the market, or who should attend. Those who have the most at stake should have the biggest voice.
The farmers market has been part of every day in every corner of the globe for eons. We, in North America, are rediscovering ours. Evelyn’s Crackers is only one example of what is coming out of the farmers market and as one of the first artisans to use endangered grains we certainly cannot become big enough.
Looking for that perfect gift? Holiday gift giving for us has been quite simple for the past 5 years because all of our friends and family receive Evelyn’s Crackers. So much so, it may be becoming like this for a few folks:
So we now offer our Cookies and Granola. And so can YOU!!
We are back from the bi-annual Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy as Canadian delegates showcasing our crackers and shortbread made with Red Fife wheat (a once endangered grain). Along with other delegate farmers and artisan food producers representing Canada and the Slow Food Ark of Taste we soon discovered hundreds of other like minded dedicated people from all over the world committed to putting endangered foods and heritage traditions back into the mainstream.
There was so much to see and taste and visitors took advantage of every minute of the 6 day conference. The former Winter Olympic ice-skating arena was filled to capacity with international delegates representing North & South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In the same complex, a former Fiat factory, housed two massive areas dedicated to foods from all over Italy and a mixture of small and large producers offering a never ending supply of food samples described in just as many banners and signs.
After visiting dozen and dozens of little booths a welcomed respite to the hustle and bustle could be found in a third area dedicated to taste workshops with real-time translators to explain the multiple courses of unique and hard to find foods, beverages and cooking traditions. Many were sold old out quickly, but we were able to attend several. Among our favorites were: Spanish cava, Italian Barolo, Scottish beer (only organic brewery in the country), Tibetan rice, Italian seafood and Italian heritage beef.
Each workshop began the same. First the headsets were handed out, the flight of wine glasses were filled and then the food was served. But not before hearing about the region the food came from, the history and tradition and the advocacy behind reintroducing these flavors.
For a first time visitor, the sheer vastness of the three areas: International Salone, Italian Salone and the Tasting Workshops could independently be the sole focus for the conference. There was so much to see and taste that it will keep many slow-minded people coming back.
Now a worldwide community, Slow Food was created in Italy in the mid 1980’s to promote an alternative to the expanding global community and to focus on preserving “traditional and regional cuisine(s) and encourages farming of plant, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.” Every two years in Turin, Italy at the Terra Madre (Mother Earth) Conference, a network of food visionaries will gather to discuss, “innovative concepts in the field of food, gastronomy, globalization, economics.” Preparations are under way for this years conference, which will be held in a few weeks and for the first time will be open to the public. Delegates from over a 150 countries will be represented at the conference introducing untold numbers of flavours and food traditions.
This year we have been selected by Slow Food Canada to share examples of our Slightly Seedy Cracker and Lavender Shortbread Cookie, both made Red Fife wheat. A wheat that was brought from Scotland and was planted in the Peterborough area of southern Ontario in the 1840’s by David Fife. Naturally resistant to certain fungicides it acclimated well to Canada’s farmland and was planted across the prairies as people settled westward. Although renowned for its nutty and robust flavour it went by the wayside for a wheat that harvested earlier and for much of the 20th century was forgotten. Twenty years ago, a small amount of Red Fife seeds were acquired from a Canadian seed bank and planted by Sharon Remple. By the support of Slow Food’s heritage foods advocacy and the Ark of Taste along with several dedicated farmers and artisan bakers, Red Fife wheat is once again being planted from coast to coast.
“The hand that holds the seed controls the food supply. May seed always be in the hands of gardeners and farmers who will save and share this wealth.”
While speaking to dozens of people at the farmers market we find there is a huge demand for gluten-free. Interestingly, the majority of people seem to be lacking a genuine gluten intolerance and still choose to avoid it anyway. As a result, there is a flood of gluten-free foods, many of which are quite awful. Quite early on we intended on making a gluten-free cracker, but have hesitated. Partly because gluten protein is vital to the structure and texture of the crackers, but also because it implies that gluten is bad. Well, on Saturday I spoke to someone who helped me put this into perspective.
Rebecca is a nutritionist and also a foodie, so I felt in good hands asking her some questions about gluten. She explained how some people would have issues eating a slice of white bread, for example, and less so with a whole grain cracker. Even though they both have gluten, there is no fiber in the white bread (devoid of anything really) so there is a chance for it to stay in the bowel longer (possibly fermenting), which can cause bloating, which is one of the symptoms. Where as the Slightly Seedy cracker that has the Red Fife whole wheat grain, oats, flax, sesame seeds an pumpkin seeds all of which promote better, and quicker digestion . So it really isn’t a gluten thing for certain people, but rather the quality of the flour that includes the whole grain.