Much of history and folklore can be altered - or embellished - by whomever is doing the storytelling. Accurate record-keeping, scientific analysis, and anecdotal testimonies all play a part in sharing significant events throughout time, and often there is a kernel of truth, a sliver of fiction, and a dash of mystery that makes an edible tale delectable.
The story of Marquis Wheat and its heritage is one such tale.
When I was in public school, I was taught by Mr. McLeod that Canada was the bread basket of the world. Not only did we celebrate a rich variety of customs comprised from many different cultures around the globe, Canada literally supplied the world with the highest quality of wheat to make that bread with (and still do!).
Red Fife (Halychanka) wheat was first sown in Canada in 1852, by a man named David Fife near Peterborough, Ontario. The different versions of how the grains came to be in David's possession are interesting tales unto themselves - to which you can read more about through the links at the bottom of this post. While most of the Northern continent was still harsh and unsettled, the Crown took agriculture very seriously as they knew the economy and future of the Dominion depended upon food and job security. Red Fife wheat, thought to be a Ukrainian wheat called 'Galician', proved to be well-suited to the environmentally-challenging and diverse landscape of not just Upper Canada, but also the Prairies and Northern United States. Red Fife was prized for its high yields, early ripening, great taste, protein content, and bread baking value; it changed the agricultural landscape forever.
In the early 1900's, when the Crown was testing more strains of wheat for successful farming, a new hybrid called Marquis was developed at a research station in BC derived from Red Fife and a hard red wheat from Calcutta. This wheat variety proved to be so successful in all ways superior to Red Fife that by 1918 it composed 80% of the wheat grown in Canada and +40% of the wheat in the US. It was fundamental in supplying sufficient rations to our allies during WW I even though many of the farmers' and workers were sent to the front lines. So what happened to this wheat and why have we never heard of it before?
We just about killed it. Really. This is where the story seems more embellished than truth but that is exactly what has happened as in many parts of agriculture: profit by a select few corporations rules all. With the proliferation of large-scale mills using steel rollers to remove the bran and germ (which are paradoxically what provides the nutrients but make the flour go rancid in due time) with industrial speed and efficiency, localized fresh flour milling moved from centralized small towns to large granaries - shipped to and fro with the railroads. 'White' flour became the status quo and nutrition and taste became non-important in the money-making world. Where we once took nutritious and flavourful grains to the local miller to make bread daily transformed into bags of pre-milled white flours filling the grocer's shelves. Did you know Canada fortifies the wheat flours available for sale in grocery store to put back in what has been mechanically and genetically removed?
Through technological advances and cross-breeding practices, the Marquis strain was cross-bred to create other varieties of wheat to improve upon the same reasons it was successful to begin with - higher yields, climate suitability, earlier harvest, gluten structure, price, and bread baking ability -and it just wasn't sown any longer since other wheats would make a better 'white' flour at a better price. That is until 2007.
At an organic farm near Saskatoon tended by the Loiselle Family, a farmer named Marc has been helping shape the diversity of the Canadian foodscape by planting and harvesting Red Fife wheat. In 2007, Marc heard about Marquis wheat and wanted to grow this variety that used to be harvested on his 108 year-old family farm. By sourcing a single 11-pound bag of grains from a farmer in Edmonton, Marc has successfully re-stabilized the wheat variety that used to be a cornerstone of the Canadian economy and Prairie culture. In tribute to his family farm - and using organic and bio-dynamic practices - Marc and his family now supply some of North America's best bakers with The Son of Fife, Blé Marquis de Loiselle Wheat - a tribute to his and Canada's agricultural heritage.
So what does any of this have to do with the Horton Farmers' Market? Well, a well-known pantry supplier/farmer/miller to the real-food crowd in Elgin County (and some Toronto chefs) has purchased some of the Blé Marquis de Loiselle Wheat kernels and is now milling it at his farm east of Aylmer. With a whopping protein content of 15.5% , this flour will be baked into natural sourdough loaves available at this weekend' s farmers' market. Tomorrow (or Wednesday, depending on when you are reading this post), I will be baking a test batch of this bread to see and feel what its baking qualities are like. If all goes as planned, I'll have more to share at the market.
I'm not just boasting when I say there can sometimes be lineups at the Elgin Harvest counter on Saturday mornings. I'm proud of what I offer and the tastes are of foods you want to enjoy. Please, be respectful of the market goer's ahead of you in line. One of the fundamentals of a farmers' market is to connect with the person that either grows or prepares the food you want to purchase. If someone wants to ask questions about preparation techniques, ingredients, what's in the fridge, to tell me what they liked/suggestions for improvement, etc., I will give them the time they need - even if that means you have to wait a little bit longer; you would want me to do the same for you.
More info about Marquis Wheat:
Loiselle Organic Farm Website
From a Single Seed - Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine - Agri-Food Canada
Buy Local, Buy Fresh Elgin - Map - Franz Seeberger #16 HOPE Eco-farms
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.