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 Sexiest Slow Food in Prince Edward County
My visit to Chatham-Kent was facilitated by C-K Table. All research, writing, and opinions remain my own.