A bread from the history books
A Toronto celebrity chef is helping a cross-Canada revival of the heritage grain Red Fife
PAMELA CUTHBERT | Jul 31, 2006
Baker Rebecca Stuart is making history at the three eponymous restaurants of celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy in downtown Toronto. Starting this month, the recent graduate of the Stratford Chefs School is delivering nutty-flavoured sourdough loaves made with an heirloom Canadian grain -- and in the process returning Red Fife wheat to its home turf of Ontario.
But is the smell of fresh-baked breads putting some noses out of joint? Red Fife, the genetic parent to most bread-wheat grown in North America, now has dubious legal status as a fringe product not approved for human consumption. Nonsense, say Kennedy and Stuart, who are part of a rising grassroots movement of restaurateurs, organic farmers, artisan bakers and activists from Whitehorse to Nova Scotia restoring the heritage variety to its former glory.
In the 1840s, a packet of seeds travelled from Scotland to a small plot near Peterborough, Ont. Immigrant Glaswegian farmer David Fife, struggling to feed his family, had written to a friend back home in search of seeds, and set in motion the cultivation of Canada's wheat industry.
The grain had all the right properties for the territory: early maturation and rust resistance. Bakers, farmers and millers favoured it for its exceptional flavour, and Red Fife, named for its ruddy colour and its pioneer, was scattered across Ontario, then into the U.S. Midwest. It became the single most important seed to sow wealth across Western Canada. But until recently, little was left of this legacy except a plaque off Highway 7 east of Peterborough.
The Canadian Wheat Board sells all western Canadian wheat and barley destined for human consumption, as opposed to animal feed, which is registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Like most heritage grains, Red Fife isn't on the CWB radar, in part because it is a "folk seed" that is genetically unstable, which means it adapts and changes according to its environment. For now, Red Fife is being sold as seed for feed, even though it is milled for the table and not the trough.
Marc Loiselle, the country's biggest supplier, recently organized a group of 22 fellow farmers into the Prairie Red Fife Organic Growers Co-operative Ltd. His interest in the grain began with agronomist and seed-saver Sharon Rempel, 50, of Nanaimo, B.C., who in 1988 started the Heritage Wheat Project, a preservation trust of seven early Canadian wheat strains including Red Fife. The project continues today, joined by a similar initiative in Nova Scotia, the Heliotrust. Loiselle chose Red Fife "primarily for the taste. It's a wonderful thing. It's the only wheat we grow."
The taste is also what inspired chef Kennedy to track it down. "It has a distinctive, nutty flavour," he says, breaking some bread with Stuart after a lunch shift, a small plate of olive oil on the side for dipping. Two years ago, Kennedy learned about Red Fife at a trade conference in Turin, Italy, where baker Cliff Leir of Victoria's Wildfire Bakery and Loiselle teamed up to promote the story of Red Fife and bake loaves on-site.
Momentum is growing. Vancouver's Raincity Grill has a shipment of Red Fife flour on the way. Whitehorse's Alpine Bakery, Christies Mayfair Bakery in Saskatoon, the Renaissance Bakery in Penticton, B.C., and Calgary's River Café are all ordering the high-gluten bread flour. Spearville Flour Mill in New Brunswick has commissioned a new supplier in Nova Scotia to meet demand. The Red Fife Sisterhood, a small group of amateur farmers, including a family living on the original Fife farm, is experimenting with growing the property's namesake wheat. "People want to grow Red Fife. It's a statement of something strong and something Canadian," says Rempel.
Loiselle has found a legal path for selling Red Fife. He uses a producer-direct-sale system set up for organic farmers by the CWB that circumvents grains going through the elevator(and avoids cross-contamination with non-organic products). "We declare it as a feed-wheat, which acknowledges that it's not registered. It's up to the buyer to use it as they see fit."
Still, a strict system in France that bans any sale of heritage wheat has Loiselle concerned for the future. "It's a big fear we have in Canada, that we won't be allowed to bring these heritage varieties to market." The farmer's worries resound with experience: history has proven it is possible to forget the seed that sprung the nation's western wealth.
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