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!”
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.”