I bought my first bag of Red Fife flour in Picton, Ontario two years ago. I’d never heard of it before and was intrigued to find cloth bags filled with a locally grown, organic whole wheat flour that had a name! Besides, it was one of the more practical items on the shelves at Pinch (a store where it’s difficult not to empty your wallet, pour out the contents and walk out with a bag full of Michael Potters’ charcuterie, logs of Fifth Town cheese and fancy schmancy salts from all corners of the earth.)
But back to Red Fife: here is a flour that any respectable foodie must get to know – especially if that foodie calls herself a Canuck.
Red Fife is a Canadian heritage wheat first planted by David Fife in Peterborough, Ontario in 1842. From 1860-1900, Red Fife enjoyed its heyday as the nation’s wheat of choice. It set the standard in both milling and baking. But once the century turned, so did Red Fife’s popularity. It was pushed out of first place by its decendant, Marquis, which came to harvest a week earlier. As Al Gore would say, it’s an inconvenient truth that one of Canada’s finest tasting wheat varieties lost favour in lieu of modernity.
I never thought much about whole wheat’s flavour until I baked with that first bag of Red Fife. I put it into my “house loaf”: a sweet combination of oatmeal, honey, white and whole wheat flours.
When Nick, the supertaster in our house took his first bite he asked, “Did you add cinnamon?” It may have been the power of suggestion, but I too detected faint glimpses of that spice tucked inside the crumb.
Slow Food Canada gets downright loquacious when describing the taste of Red Fife on its website. It proclaims, “… a hay yellow crumb, with an intense scent of herbs and vegetables colored with a light acidity. The nose has notes of anise and fennel, and in the mouth the bread is unexpectedly rich with a slightly herby and spicy flavor.”
But to Slow Food, Red Fife isn’t just any old wheat variety. It is a member of the esteemed Ark of Taste and is a “presidium project” meaning Slow Food plans to bring this variety out of obscurity and into economic (albeit artisanal) significance.
Considering Red Fife was absent from Canadian farm fields for more than eight decades, Slow Food is a miracle worker. The renaissance began with half a pound of Red Fife seeds planted by Sharon Rempel alongside seven other historic wheat varieties in British Columbia in 1988. Two decades later, 500 tons (or a million pounds) of Red Fife wheat were harvested in Canada in 2007.
Of course, 500 tons is a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to a wheat growing nation like ours, but to a foodie like me, those numbers offer up taste and opportunity. But how much?
Enter the food test
Whether it’s wine, olive oil or whole wheat flour, the only way to discern taste is a side-by-side tasting. So the other day, I made two loaves of bread. One loaf was made with 100 per cent organic Red Fife flour. The other was made with 100 per cent organic No-Name whole wheat flour.
Why do I call it No-Name? Because most flours sold today are a blend of wheat varieties that are never listed on the label.
Even more disheartening is that fact that whole wheat flour sold in Canada is not necessarily whole grain due to a ridiculously outdated piece of 1964 regulation which allows millers to legally use “whole wheat” on the label despite their removal of up to 70 per cent of the wheat’s germ!!!
Fortunately, not every miller engages in this practice, but you have to do detective work to find out if the whole wheat flour you buy is actually whole. I called up Grain Process Enterprises Ltd (115 Commander Blvd, Scarborough, (416) 291-3226) and was reassured to learn that the organic stone ground hard whole wheat flour I regularly purchase at Strictly Bulk (683 Danforth Ave; (416) 466-6849) is indeed “whole grain”. Nevertheless, it’s still a No-Name because it’s a blend.
Here’s how I conducted my very scientific food test:
I compared the flours. Red Fife had a reddish, deeper hue with more contrasting dark bits compared to No-Name. (FYI, all Red Fife grown in Canada is organic and milled in whole grain form.)
I compared the sponges. Red Fife’s bubbles were tighter and smaller than No-Name’s.
I compared the ferments. During the first and second rise Red Fife was slightly more sluggish and not as robust as No-Name.
I compared oven-spring. Sorry, old Red Fife lost out in this department. While you can’t really see the difference in the cross-section photo here, you can see it in the first photo of this posting. The Red Fife loaf (forefront) is not nearly as puffed as the No-Name beside it, with perhaps as little as 30 per cent less oven-spring.
I compared flavour, crumb and appearance. Red Fife is the winner. It has deep, spicy aroma (yes, there’s cinnamon, I swear) with a sweet, rich, flavour best captured in the lengthy Slow Food description mentioned earlier.
Why can’t Red Fife rise like No-Name? I called up two Red Fife millers and learned that many factors influence a flour’s ability to rise, such as protein content, falling number (I won’t bore you with the details) and in the case of No-Name, the number of different varieties blended in the mix. Plus, if you’re using a store-bought package of No-Name whole wheat, chances are it isn’t whole grain and will rise better because it is more refined!
Phew! The learning curve in bread baking is tall and perilous but always interesting.
Curious bakers can purchase Red Fife flour at St. John’s Bakery (153 Broadview Ave; (416) 850-7413), Multiple Organics (1545 Dundas St. W; (647) 435.5340) and believe it or not, all Ontario Bulk Barns (distributed by Grassroots Organics of Desboro, Ont. )
For those looking for a Red Fife loaf, check out Jamie Kennedy’s Red Fife Sourdough at Gilead Café (4 Gilead Place, (647) 288-0680) or taste the Red Fife loaf sold at St. John’s Bakery.
And here’s my promise: send me a recipe for 100 per cent Red Fife sourdough and I will personally bake a loaf of that for you! In the meantime, here’s my best sandwich loaf recipe.
In the bowl of an electrical mixer, combine:
3 cups Red Fife flour
2 ¾ cups spring or filtered water at room temperature
¼ cup honey
1 tsp instant (aka bread machine) yeast
Use the paddle attachment and mix at medium until combined, about one minute. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to ferment for 1 ½ -2 hours or until bubble-ridden like a sponge.
1 tbsp kosher salt
3 ½ -4 cups Red Fife flour
Add salt and 3 cups of the flour to the sponge and mix with dough hook, adding more of the remaining dough, by the spoonful, until the dough forms and breaks away from the sides of the bowl, mixing for a total of 6-8 minutes or until the dough is puffy, shiny and elastic.
Transfer to a large, oiled bowl or container, cover and rise at room temperature until doubled, about 2 ½ hrs.
Gently deflate the dough. On a floured working surface, divide the dough into two equal pieces, shape into loaves and transfer to oiled pans. Cover with a tea towel and spray with a mister a few times to dampen lightly. Rise 1 hr.
Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425° F.
Just before baking, sprinkle the loaves with Red Fife flour and slash.
Bake in the lower third of the oven. Spray the loaves with a mister twice in the first 3 minutes of baking. Bake 15 min. Reduce to 375° F and bake 25-30 min. more.