Whey Butter. Way Cool.

It has been awhile since butter molds graced our kitchens and many of us are jumping at the chance to buy freshly churned butter at local farmers markets.

Butter is an important staple in many cultures and is a huge industry around the world. In the past 10 years India is the leader in production followed by the US, Germany and New Zealand where France is the leader in consumption

Cow milk is most commonly used, but other animals, such as goats and yaks are known to be great providers in other countries. In Tibet, a mixture of barley flour and yak butter is staple food. Fermented, or “rancid” yak butter is consumed as a hot tea in the Himalayas. Moroccans bury clarified butter in the ground and age it for several months. Salting butter is a great preservative.

There are several varieties of butter:salted/unsalted, clarified (butter that has had almost all of it’s water and butter solids removed by heating/separating), cultured butter (butter that is made from sour or fermented milk giving the butter a stronger flavor), and whey butter (whey–a liquid by-product of cheese that is added).

Whey butter, our new favorite, has a slightly salted flavor, but not as “cheesy” as cultured butter. It is great for sweet and savory applications. We use butter from Stirling Creamery and is one of our secret ingredients in our shortbreads. It adds depth and flavor to our baking both sweet and savory. Due to the fermentation in the whey there may be some health benefits, too.

I recently made butter using a wooden butter mold acquired at an antique market. A simple design, four sides and a rectangular plunger with a small wooden handle. Now, if you have ever walked away from a mixer and over whipped heaving cream by mistake, you know the butter sticks to the whip and the liquid splashes about making a mess. (I was carefully applying the same technique.) With some success, and the butter still soft, I placed it in the mold, pressed down on the handle and waited for a few minutes. I had a perfectly rectangular shape about an inch thick. It didn’t have much flavor and wasn’t very rich or buttery. There obviously is a bit more to making a tasty butter. The fat content of the cream needs to be higher and maybe a slower churning vs whipping is the key.

I am leaving the butter-making to the professionals for now, but it was fun being curious and playing with my food. I have great butter mold as a book-end to prove it.

Red Fife Pancakes

We are always happy to hear how other people are using Ontario grains in every day meals cooked at home.

One of the members of Evelyn’s Crackers’ community submitted this recipe for making pancakes using Red Fife Whole Wheat flour farmed from John and Patricia Hastings of CIPM Farms in Medoc, Ontario:

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
2 cups of milk
1 cup red fife whole wheat flour
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon (more if you like)
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/4 cup melted butter

Blend the oats and milk, let stand for five minutes. Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt. Add the dry ingredients, eggs and butter to at mixture and stir until just combined.

Heat pan (cast-iron preferably) on medium low heat; lightly coat with a neutral oil and pour batter and proceed as expected.

Most weeks the Red Fife whole wheat can be pre-ordered via email (evelynscrackers@gmail.com) and picked up at Evelyn’s Crackers table at all of our farmers marketlocations.

>How Far Will You Go for a Fresh Egg?

Ooo…That Smell. Freshly Milled Grains

(c)2012 Edmud Rek/Rekfotos

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!”

Heritage Grains. Why They Are Worth it.

copyright Edmund Rek/rekfotos.com

Unhulled Turkish bulgar wheat at the Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy. One of the first cultivated wheats.

Heritage grains may be the final cog in the wheel of the good food and sustainable farming movements. These special grains were bountiful leading up to the 1900’s and vital to westward settlements in North America. They were grown for their adaptability, nutritional value, animal feed and fermented for spirits.

By the 1950’s the population transitioned from rural to urban communities, therefore changing the direction of food and farming. At the same time, micro-food communities were pushed aside by large agri-businesses and huge food chains monopolized hybridized wheat and limited the choices for the increasing number of the suburban consumers.

Striving for the quick and convenient, food became overly processed and shelf-life won out over nutrition. Slowly these older varieties of grains, and much of the food our grandparents and great grandparents ate, became harder and harder to find.

In the past 10-15 years, however, a new generation of farmers and advocates are finding ways to revitalize our food choices. Similar to the environmental movement of the 1970s, smart, dedicated individuals such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin offering insights for consumers and leading them away from foods grown on industrial farms. Huge online campaigns are forming (Top 20 local food advocates on Twitter link) where conscience eaters are demanding nutrient dense food grown by sustainable farms.

As a result, it is becoming easier to understand the cost of industrial farming. Fruits and vegetables growers who use pesticides, fungicides and herbicides disturb the natural habitat of bees and contaminate of ground water. Documentaries are exposing poor animal husbandry that result in unappetizing caged chickens and sick feedlot cattle. What’s harder to see is is how modern wheat was bred to fit the needs of large scale farming.

Heritage grains can offer everything that industrialized wheat cannot.

Our wholegrain flour is really a 100% whole grain FLOUR. Want to know more? Kall the kaptain.

1. Whole Grain Nutrition. The outer layer of the grain contain most of the nutrients and when freshly milled it has a wonderful taste and texture. (Enriched white flours are an indication that the good stuff has been removed.)

2. Sustainability. These older varieties adapt to their growing conditions. Seeds don’t have to be purchased from outside the farm they can be planted each year collected after harvest. Hybridized grains tend to lose vitality with a shorter life-cycle. Heritage grains are an asset that stays on the farm, year after year.

3. Diversity. Food mono-cultures dominated by a single seed species can inhibit long-term agricultural diversity. Growing buckwheat, rye, barley, durum and spelt can offer so much more than a single crop of dwarfed wheat. The soil benefits greatly with crop rotation and seed variety. Nutrients remain in the soil, which lends itself to organic farming and offer more variety in our diets.

Heritage grains connect us to a time were micro food communities were the only option, where you knew the person who grew your food, or you grew it yourself. We have the unique benefit of living in modern cities with modern conveniences that can offer connections to these special grains through a new breed of committed farmers. CIPM and K2Mill are our main grain suppliers. Look for heritage grains at farmers markets, through subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture, food artisans and at farm-gate sales. Currently, we are using buckwheat, rye, durum, red fife wheat and spelt all grown and milled in Ontario.

(We will be creating a page to post your favorite whole grain recipes soon.)

Farmers Market Selling Secrets

By participating in several farmers markets, over the years, we have learned a few ways that help us to increase our sales and maximize our presence.

Here are some tips that you can use if you are selling:

1. There is an old saying in the retail business, “Pile it high and watch it fly!” Have plenty of product on display.

2. Add some risers to the table legs. It gets items closer to the people who may buy them. Remember three-foot marketing and try to have items within reach. Folks like to pick and hold, examine and fall in love with things before they buy.

3. Have labels and prices that are easy to read. Make it apparent what you are selling even from a distance. You have a split second to capture someone’s attention amongst many vendors and things to see.

4. Sample. Sample. Sample.

5. Acknowledge someone as soon as they come to the table. Especially, when you are helping someone else. A quick hello, or smile is all it takes.

6. Offer a special price for buying more than one item. Buying in bulk should offer some benefit.

7. Create different heights with your display. Baskets and risers work well.

8. Have items neatly arranged and as things sell. Re-merchandise so the table looks full and not picked over.

These are just a few things that we have tried that work for us and may help you whether you are planning a yard sale, lemonade stand, or run a retail store.

Feel free to comment below of you have any tips to share.

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Can Farmers Markets Sustain Small Businesses?

IMG_1126A few years ago we discovered an endangered heritage wheat (Red Fife), that became the canvas of our creativity and a gateway to the farmers markets. Evelyn’s Crackers is in our 5th year and can still be found at several farmers markets in Toronto. Our crowning achievement was representing Canada at the Slow Food Conference in Italy and being recognized for our advocacy of heritage grains and establishing a link from grower to consumer. We realize being recognized at the global level for our dedication is an honor, but more importantly it raises awareness of these forgotten grains and provides initiatives for growers, millers and food artisans to use them. Each year more farmers markets are forming and for vendors to continue to make long term commitments there needs to be a more focus on the ability of the farmers markets to grow small businesses.

Within our first season at the farmers market we were contacted by a local butcher to merchandise our crackers based on their customer requests. To sustain our business, especially during the off-market season, we have to sell to retailers. The costs associated with wholesaling are much more and the margins are much less. For example, if I have 10 stores that order $100 every month that is $1000. 50% is the cost to make the crackers, the labels, packaging, bar-code and nutritional analysis. That does not factor in the cost of delivery, or any credits that would be given for breakage or expiration, not to mention chasing down past due invoices, or the possibility of not being paid due to insufficient funds. Some retailers will not pay before 60 days, therefore greatly affecting cash flow. The exposure in stores raises the awareness of the brand but there are many more costs involved.

To generate significant revenues you are looking at at least 200 accounts. That number of stores requires a distributor who takes up to 35%, on top of the 40-60% of the retailer takes drives up the retail price significantly. It doesn’t take long to see the pressures within the industry to source cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make up for these extra costs. To continue using heritage grains grown organically and nearby we offset these extra costs by delivering to stores ourselves and selling at farmers markets.

It  takes 2-3 years to establish a following, however the benefits to selling at farmers markets is the ability to build a brand, have instant feedback and to experiment with flavors and methods of production. We offer many more items at the farmers markets than we ever would through our retail partners. Our margins are better and we can connect and sell directly to consumers. Ironically, our application was rejected for at a new market starting its second season this year because a few of our crackers are being sold in a retail store nearby. Their reasoning, “You are too big for the market.”

There are significant failures to see the importance of farmers markets it’s ability to sustain small businesses. There is a failure to understand the food system and how it relates to the small producer and the challenges associated with competing with the agri-industry for prices and market share. Farmers market vendors should be encouraged to wholesale. You cannot build a local food economy one day a week, 5 months out of the year. The farmers market needs to move beyond the impulse buy because small businesses can make an impact. To date, Evelyn’s Crackers has purchased over 3 tons of Ontario grains. There is serious disconnect when our limited success strikes against us.

New farmers market organizers are missing opportunities to look beyond the market. They are getting caught up in surveys instead of being leaders and working towards a long term vision and creating a market identity. Not very often someone with “skin in the game,” or vendors making a living in the farmers markets are part of the decision process, or creating priorities of the market, or who should attend. Those who have the most at stake should have the biggest voice.

The farmers market has been part of every day in every corner of the globe for eons. We, in North America, are rediscovering ours. Evelyn’s Crackers is only one example of what is coming out of the farmers market and as one of the first artisans to use endangered grains we certainly cannot become big enough.

Community Supported Agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, referrers to a particular group of individuals who support one or more local farms by sharing in the benefits of their harvest.

Typically, at the beginning of the season, subscriptions are sold by a farm or cooperative for a weekly food box either delivered or to be picked up. Oftentimes, starting in May, and ending around Thanksgiving, members can receive a variety of vegetables, lettuces, meats, eggs or fruit. The price per week can vary from $25 up to $100 and can feed a family for several meals and supplement your visits to the grocery store.

CSA memberships will provide fresh nutrient dense freshly harvested foods in a convenient and accessible way. Here are a few that we recommend:

Kawartha CSA
Stoddart’s Family Farm
Twin Creeks Farm
Everdale Farm
Vicki’s Veggies

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Slow Food. Italy. And We.

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.”

– Sharon Rempel

“David Fife, operator of the first experimental farm in Canada and developer of Red Fife Wheat” (Wikapedia source image)

Take The Whole Grain Challenge

(Photo credit: (c)2016 Edmund Rek/rekfotos.com)

Throughout history, farming has been the cornerstone of many great civilizations. The ability of early societies to store food (mostly domesticated grains) in quantities beyond what they needed changed the how they ate. Efforts needed to do be nomadic and search for food, were now directed to settling and growing their own. Thousands of years later not much has changed, but things are very different.

In North America our lineage of farming has been established by cross-breeding and hybridization. The process has evolved to control crops and animals to maximized production and increased yields. In the 1950’s the population grew and industrialized farming was there to meet the demand. Aided by supermarkets, fast food chains, and interstate highways the food distribution network spread like a crack through ice. Unfortunately, the majority of the farmland was a mono-culture of mostly wheat, corn and soy. Verlyn Klinkenborg explains how, “Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity.” (Learn more  here)

Over the past several years public health and environmental concerns has grown a geater interest in local foods and motivation for farmers and ethical food producers to connect to make the change. Focus on heritage varieties and ancient grains, raising grass-fed & grass-finished beef, wild pigs, free-range chickens and heirloom fruits and vegetables is the goal. Non profits like Slow Food are strong advocates for these endangered varieties and encourage farmers to grow them, chefs to cook them and consumers to eat these diverse foods. (See the Arc of Taste: Canada/US).

Prominent food companies (Unilever/Kraft/General Mills) are supplied by factory farms, who choose shelf life over nutrition to overcome the challenge of a vast distribution network and to meet the consumer demand of close-by convenience. Prior to this, agricultural cooperatives were necessary within smaller communities by sharing seeds, equipment, harvesting, processing, transportation even marketing within a group of farmers that enabled a local commerce that was difficult, or impossible to do so otherwise.

We are seeing the return of the agricultural co-operative with a renewed focus in quality vs quantity. There are several co-ops within the GTA who bring goods from a group of farmers close by to sell at farmers markets and CSA drop-off locations: Quinte Co-op, Hope Eco Farms, 100km Foods, just to name a few. These passionate groups offer us access to more locally grown foods and enable farmers to sell more of what they grow for a fair market price.

Beautiful produce, eggs and fresh meats are not the only benefits from buying farmer coops. Building relationships with growers show transparency into their farming methods and offer insights into heritage foods they are growing. Meeting the families to whom they are feeding is a real inspiration.

At the end of the day, when the consumer is King, better food choices are available to many of us. Big-box-stores such as (Walmart/Cosco/Loblaws) are taking note and offering local and organic foods in addition to conventional staples. These profit driven companies are finding their customers value more ethically produced foods.

For the choices and diversity of good foods to grow and become more available there will need to be challenges and  a few sacrifices. Convenience for one, more time in the kitchen is another, but this can be a reality and it is becoming a reality within micro communities. If you are up for the challenge, one of the ways to participate can be as simple as eliminating white flour from your kitchen and your diet. Harken back to those early civilizations and just use whole grains purchased from a farmer or miller nearby, or someone connected the person who grow the grains. And try this for a month and see what happens. See if it sticks. See if the flavour and and the satisfaction makes a significant impression on you and your family.

Stay tuned for more details about the Evelyn’s Crackers “Whole Grain Challenge”…(continued)

2012 The Rise of the Artisan Cracker

(Evelyns Cheddar Crispies Cracker and Monfortes Buffalo Milk Cheese. Photo Credit ©2012 Edmund Rek/Rekfotos.com)

Looking back fondly on last year (2011) we had tremendous growth partnering with nearly thirty new specialty stores surrounding Toronto and a new account in Nova Scotia and we were contacted by a specialty distributor in New Jersey who supplies New York City. As great as that sounds (say in unison: NEW YORK CITY!) we are going to focus the beginning of this year developing the relationships we have, be present advocating for local food and supporting farmers markets and hopefully inspire others to do the same. A new market like Ottawa, or NYC is something we are strongly considering for 2012. But, as small batch producers who bake our crackers to order, slow and steady growth has been the best way to expand and offer a quality artisan cracker.

2011 also brought us a new cracker and shortbread flavors. Inspired by one of our original crackers the “Salty Oats” the “Oat Cakes” have been very well received at the farmers markets and are starting to be available in a few stores starting this week. A “Rose Cardamom Shortbread,” turned to be the perfect partner in crime with the “Lavender Shortbread” to bring out your inner cookie monster. We look forward to other ideas and opportunities to bring local heritage grains to market. Muesli, granola, a hot cereal and a couple pancake mixes have been our newest inspirations.

We are a chef and baker rooted in the local, organic and good food movements; Evelyn’s Crackers has been a product of that. We also look forward to acting beyond advocators, but also as educators and offer insight to foods, how to prepared them and offer ways for you to participate in your own local community.

As always, we are grateful to our Ontario farmers who share in our commitment to offer wholesome food:

CIPM Farm;
Stoddards Farm;
Franz Seeberger;
Dancing Bees;
Hoovers Maple Syrup.