A Venerable Variety Of Wheat Runs Against The Industry's Genetically Modified Grain
As I stepped into the warm, wooden-floored confines of the Wild Fire Organic Bakery in Victoria, I yielded to a pleasurable midmorning assault on the senses. The rasp of the coffee grinder and the throaty bubbling of the milk frother competed with the aroma of freshly baked bread and the unmistakable allure of moist and gooey cinnamon buns.
But I followed my ears a little further, past the café part of the bakery, skirting the muted crackle and ambient heat of the wood-fired oven, to a curious rhythm repeating over and over in a small corner of the room. A baker was weighing out lumps of dough on an old-fashioned balance-beam scale. As each lump was swept off the scale platform, the weight on the other end would thwack the arm of the scale back into place.
Wild Fire founder Cliff Leir hopes that soon those lumps of dough could be made using flour ground from kernels of Red Fife wheat. Leir is installing a grain silo and a stone mill to accommodate a heritage variety he and others believe built this nation.
"It's the best-flavoured wheat that I've found so far," says Leir, a young baker who started his career at a Victoria street market, selling loaves of bread he cooked in a brick oven he built in his driveway. "Red Fife is very subtle, but definitely a much deeper, fuller wheat flavour."
Right now, Leir has only a few kilograms of Red Fife wheat in the bakery. He had the samples sent from Marc Loiselle, an organic-grain farmer in Saskatchewan who grows the most Red Fife wheat of any farmer in Canada. Fewer than two dozen farmers grow Red Fife wheat these days, but that's not the way it used to be.
"It was the first wheat that actually flourished in Canadian soil," says Sushil Saini, a member of the Vancouver Island Slow Food Convivium and the joint coordinator of a Heritage Wheat Artisan Bread Tour stretching across the country this year. "We know that it first came to Canada in 1842, to a farmer named David Fife near Peterborough, Ontario." Over coffee at Wild Fire, Saini reverently describes the legends associated with the arrival of just a few grains. "Some say it arrived stuck in a hatband that had been accidentally dropped in a bin aboard a Ukrainian ship. Others maintain it was an impure sample of grain arriving from Scotland." The rest of the story is clear: the wheat that David Fife sprouted in Ontario matured earlier and resisted disease better than anything else being grown in Canada at the time. Red Fife allowed the Prairie provinces to develop and is the granddaddy of all the other strains of wheat that prospered on the Prairies and earned Canada the reputation as the breadbasket of the world.
That was then; this is now. Red Fife is in danger of becoming extinct, which would mean losing one of the most important pieces of Canada's agricultural heritage, as well as the grain's unique flavour and the biodiversity of the genetic parent of all the wheat strains grown in Canada today. Last year, Slow Food Canada named Red Fife wheat to the Canadian Ark of Taste, a kind of foodie hall of fame. Efforts are now under way to make sure more farmers can grow it, more artisan bakers like Cliff Leir bake with it, and more people eat it. Leir is presenting to the Bread Bakers Guild of America in Florida and leading discussion on sourcing wheats for artisan bakers. He's also going to Italy in October to attend Slow Food's Salone di Gusto, where he will lead a presentation and comparative tasting.
At the end of February, Saini appeared before the Prairie Recommending Committee of the Canadian Wheat Board. She says the reception to her plea to make Red Fife once again a wheat registered for growing and selling was positive. A motion was unanimously passed to set up a committee to examine a new set of protocols for evaluating heritage and/or organic wheats, and she adds that the members of the committees recognize that heritage wheats are valuable to niche markets. Saini has also secured letters of support from Weston Bakeries (Canada's largest bread company) and Nature's Path, an organic cereal maker in Richmond, for the registration.
As a baker, Leir appreciates the taste of well-made bread. But he's worried there's more at stake than improving our palates. "If the Canadian government continues to encourage research into genetically modified wheat, it could taint our whole reputation when we already have perfectly good strains of heritage wheat to grow."
Even if the wheat board never approves Red Fife for sale, Saini says Slow Food will encourage farmers outside the wheat-board jurisdiction to grow it, allowing it to keep its place on the Canadian Ark of Taste.
Leir is pressing ahead with the plans for his bakery, confident he'll be able to source enough Red Fife wheat to feed the big stone wheels of his mill. "Bread tastes best when you have freshly milled flour." The shelves of Wild Fire are always empty of bread by the end of the day, quick sales a testament to the "slow" nature of the products.