Wheat flour, winning food, and Will Ferrell come together...
Have you ever seen the movie "Stranger Than Fiction" with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Will Ferrell? There's a great scene where Ferrell's character, Harold Crick, presents Gyllenhaal's baker character, Ana Pascal, with a huge basket of flours - buckwheat, oat, whole wheat, you name it - as a peace offering. "I brought you some flours" he deadpans.
Of course, as a baker Ana Pascal knows that blossoming flowers are nothing compared to baking flours. The 2006 movie was well ahead of its time, exhaling the virtues of diverse flour and food before words like locavore or farm-to-table had even entered our vocabulary. And the southwestern Ontario county of Chatham-Kent has its very own Harold Crick.
Like Crick, Paul Spence loves flours and he's not afraid to think outside the box. But happily he does not share Crick's occupation of being a boorish IRS agent! Paul Spence is a farmer, a bit of an unorthodox one at that, and an integral part of the C-K Table team.
CK-Table likes to describe themselves as the "to" in the farm-to-table movement in southwestern Ontario. They advocate for sustainable, secure food and work tirelessly to promote local farmers and debunk myths about local food. And for Paul Spence, flour is at the heart of this equation.
Paul's the kind of guy who can't get enough of old farm equipment and implements, but it's more than just a collecting hobby run wild. He's trying to bring farming and food processing back to its roots and if he can't find exactly what he needs, he has no problem attempting to build it himself.
Paul is just as interested in lost plant varieties as he is in lost farm tools. Paul and his neighbour, Mark Bos of Bos Homestead, are currently coddling a small patch of White Sonora and Turkey Red wheat, determined to discover which heirloom grain will thrive best in Chatham-Kent's mild micro-climate and prized, rich farming soil. Mark and Paul's best asset in this venture might just be their sense of humor as they battle weeds and the disbelief of others in a region where cash crop farming is the raison d'etre.
Flour was admittedly something I gave very little thought to when I considered local food. For me, local food meant fresh produce, your standard fruits and veggies. It was obvious to me how different a local tomato tasted compared to an imported one, but I always assumed that all flour was just about the same. There was white flour, there was whole wheat flour, and chances are there were fancy flours that fictional bakers like Ana Pascal used. What more was there to think about?
Turns out, there's a lot more to flour than meets the eye, starting with the color and texture. Did you know that flour is actually naturally a light brown? I couldn't believe the difference in color, as well as texture, when I compared a small dish of standard bleached white flour with the larger pan of stone ground wheat that Paul produced in a matter of minutes. I never realized just how processed the flour I consume on a daily basis really is.
Bleaching is just one reason why store bought flour looks, feels, and tastes so differently from freshly ground flour. Stone ground flour includes all components of the wheat - the bran, the germ, and the endosperm, while traditional commercial flour does not. My pantry has always been stocked with bran and wheat germ, purchased at a premium at the health food store, and I had never considered how ridiculous it was to purchase all three parts of flour separately only to have them reunite in a recipe.
Speaking of recipes, you'd expect that the local chefs of Chatham-Kent to be going crazy for the region's local produce. After all, the local food movement is the biggest culinary trend in the world and Chatham-Kent is one of Canada's top producing agricultural regions. But according to Paul and the C-K Table team, this isn't the case. In fact, they've encountered significant resistance from the region's chefs and restaurateurs.
I witnessed this first hand myself, when eating breakfast at a popular restaurant which didn't have a single local food on the menu - and during the height of berry season at that. Fortunately Chef Joel at the Chilled Cork restaurant was willing to work with C-K Table to create a custom, one-night-only menu based on the ingredients produced by C-K Table farmers.
So how do these local ingredients fare when it comes to transforming them from farm to fork? Amazingly well! We started with an amuse bouche of a cornmeal breaded chicken wing, smoked tomato aioli, and a tempura zucchini blossom. Spoiler alert - I think the zucchini blossom was my favourite thing from the entire dish. They are the darling of the culinary world and I can see why. They're absolutely delicious and I can't believe that just a few hours earlier they were growing at Paul's farm.
Next up was an heirloom tomato salad in a stone ground flour tart (you know how much I adore heirloom tomatoes!) followed by a stone ground flour biscuit with sausage gravy.
The main course was an absolute food extravaganza, with a pesto chicken supreme, sausage, and peppers, as well as a corn and pea puree. But my favourite thing on the plate - and serious competition for my new love, the zucchini blossom - was the Ravialo with herbed goat cheese. This was my first time having Ravialo and now I'm hooked!
Ravialo is like a kind of giant ravioli which contains an egg yolk n the center. When the Ravialo cooks, the egg yolk gently poaches inside the pasta. When you cut into the cooked product, the yummy, runny, golden yolk oozes out in a gloriously messy and decadent display. The pasta dough for the Ravialo was also made with the local flour. This was by far my favourite use of the flour and I had no idea a stone ground flour could be so delicate and delicious.
Dessert featured a blueberry cobbler made with berries from another C-K Table member, Parks Blueberries, who we had visited earlier in the day. There was also a wonderful cinnamon twist made with Paul's flour. It was so sweet and buttery and crispy that I could have snacked on them all day! Washing it all down with wine from Early Acres Estate (another C-K Table supporter) made for the perfect evening.
During my time in Chatham-Kent, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be if more travelers came to the region. Who could resist such incredible fresh ingredients!? And so many people would love to do a tour with C-K Table! But now that I've had more time to reflect, I've re-prioritized.
My main hope now is that the local residents of Chatham-Kent have the opportunity to experience their local food the way I did. I would love to see more restaurants celebrating local produce and more farms embracing heirloom products. I hope C-K Table succeeds in their mission to put local food on every table and every menu and that local food evolves from being a trend to what it was always intended to be - part of a secure, sustainable, environmentally sound, and absolutely delicious component of community development.
Readers, I'd love to hear from you! What culinary trends do you think are here to stay?
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
What I Learned About Eating Local in West Lorne
How London Goes Local at the Covent Garden Market
The Best Places For Lunch in Montreal
My visit to Chatham-Kent was facilitated by C-K Table. All research, writing, and opinions remain my own.
17/8/2015 03:38:46 am
I'm a budget traveler (well, more of a 'value traveler', if you will) and I have to say: I will always pay more money to enjoy fresh, local food. That's the point of travel--to experience things you cannot experience elsewhere. Further, when I'm home, I eat locally whenever possible, even going so far as to walk to my local weekly farmers' market. I only wish I lived somewhere where things grew year-round (I had a local tomato at a market in Miami last year--in February. It was amazing and made me want to move.)
17/8/2015 03:45:12 am
I can be so challenging to live in an area with a harsh winter- I can only imagine how good that tomato tasted in Miami!
17/8/2015 06:52:17 am
I'm so glad that farm-to-table is here to stay. When I travel, I don't want to eat the same food I can eat at home - I love local tastes and flavors. There's just something about eating and drinking something so close to the source. I find that even when I grocery shop, I'm looking for Virginia-made products and/or shopping exclusively at my local farmers market. I wish we grew wheat in Virginia!
17/8/2015 08:00:03 am
That's such a great point - why go travel if you're just trying to replicate what you do and what you eat at home?
17/8/2015 07:23:08 am
It's nice to see farms enjoying a come back. Hopefully they're here to stay and the more people buy local, the more it will become the norm and be affordable. The problem right now is that a lot of people can't afford to shop at farmer's markets because the difference in price is huge and most people don't see the point in paying double for something grown locally. I think education and affordability is key. Hopefully some day North America will be more like Europe in that it'll be normal for people to buy most of their food directly from farmers.
17/8/2015 08:01:01 am
I agree - more education is needed to people see the connection between investing more in local food and investing in the quality of life in the community they live in.
I am always SHOCKED to hear when chefs don't want to work with local farms and locally produced food. Wouldn't chefs want to work with the most fresh ingredients and help promote food grown in their area? Fresh tastes so much better! I really hope that this changes here and for the love of food, farmers and chefs can work together!
17/8/2015 01:05:10 pm
Agreed - it's never easy making initial changes but I think the long term rewards of working with local food and producers is well worth it.
22/8/2015 06:53:01 am
From farm to fork is an excellent quote! I will use that in future.
3/4/2016 08:18:31 pm
22/8/2015 07:48:45 am
Tourism departments are really missing a great opportunity by not supporting and promoting farm-to-table movements. So many travelers these days are looking for ways to connect with localities, and food is always one of the best ways.
24/8/2015 02:08:07 am
Good point - everyone says they want to "meet the locals" when they travel and food is a natural way to do so.
22/8/2015 11:52:57 am
I can be really cheap with gifts and souvenirs but good food? NEVER! I am currently looking into sustainable living as I am really interested in growing my own food. I am happy to see that the world is improving the way they eat, most especially the US! This is really impressive.
24/8/2015 02:10:07 am
You've just reminded me that local food is the perfect gift for special occasions - easy to chose, always happily received, and it does double duty by supporting the community. I was just thinking about doing my holiday gifts from a local chocolate shop!
22/8/2015 02:06:47 pm
Stoneground flour is obviously the way to go! I'm into healthy food right now (except when I dream of pie) and this post is super appealing. Especially because I'm hungry right now ...
24/8/2015 02:10:58 am
Pie is always a good plan. I did find the stoneground flour did well in the blueberry crisp but a pie pastry might be tricky.
24/8/2015 02:11:32 am
We had an amazing day exploring the region.
22/8/2015 08:35:21 pm
Such an interesting post! We've seen quite a few restaurants popping up across the world that really take advantage of the local, fresh produce and they always seem to create the most appetizing looking and tasting dishes. It's surprising that such a fertile area with so many great ingredients ready for the picking (quite literally) is not being appreciated by the local culinary scene! Hopefully the local produce movement makes it's way to Chatham-Kent! Having experience tasting fresh produce from the area, I know how great it is and what a shame it is that it's not being used!
24/8/2015 02:12:36 am
I'm feeling optimistic that the CK Table team will be able to lead a groundswell of support for incorporating local food into local restaurants (and also local events too).
I'm a big fan of local food. CSA's (community supported agriculture) are popular in and around New York City because of the farms upstate, on Long Island, and New Jersey. The CSA produce and eggs were fresh beyond compare, but I also felt reconnected with the growth season in my area. I actually knew what was in season when! I wish more people could develop an awareness about this because it can really impact your mindset when shopping for groceries. As with everything, when individuals begin supporting local farmers and demanding local foods, restaurants and other companies take notice.
24/8/2015 02:13:53 am
We've been thinking about having a CSA subscription for years but have held off because we are on the road so much (case in point - we still haven't had a chance yet to get to our own local farmers market this summer because we've been away). But I agree that for most people it's an ideal system - great for eaters, great for growers.
24/8/2015 02:16:45 am
Great for cider! I feel your frustration - sometimes it's both a blessing and a curse to be in an area that's known for just one thing because then that's all you get (but it's usually done really, really well).
23/8/2015 11:04:29 am
I was surprised to read that C-K Table has encountered resistance from local chefs. You'd think that they would be happy to have such a great opportunity for fresh food. Others have been so successful with the movement, hopefully they'll come around.
24/8/2015 02:17:51 am
I'm hoping that the team at the Chilled Cork were as inspired as we were with the great local produce - I think they are well positioned to lead the way as they are such a well known restaurant.
23/8/2015 05:34:42 pm
I love farm to table produce.It always seems to taste better and I can't imagine how fresh it tasted. It looks amazing.
24/8/2015 02:18:34 am
I ate so much food that night - I was absolutely stuffed!
23/8/2015 10:07:33 pm
Yum!! I'm glad you were able to try locally produced food, it looks so good! I'm curious about bread made with real fresh flower now. I'll have to try to hunt some down!
24/8/2015 02:19:06 am
Yes! Let me know how your quest goes.
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