My Canada, 73/150: The bread of life

I grew up in a religious culture where humble bread was (literally) transformed into something divine.

On Good Friday, Christians mark the death two thousand years prior of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene who they believe to be the son of God. His birth, life, and death (followed by resurrection and promise of a second coming to judge “the living and the dead”) saved humanity or, at least, x-y chromosome carriers. The Catholic Nicene creed “traditional version” does still say, “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”

Bread made from grain, leavened by yeast or unleavened and more biscuit-like, has been a human food staple for millennia. In what the Christian gospels call “the last supper”, Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine with his apostles, telling them to share such a meal again “in memory of me.” That became Christian communion, where bread represents the body of Christ; for Catholics due to a don’t-make-me-explain theological tenet called “transubstantiation”, the bread actually becomes the body of Christ.

In the 19th century, as Canada’s immigrant population increased and the Prairie west of the continent opened up to agriculture, farmers discovered that wheat grew well in that climate and soil.

Canadians have played a big role on the modern wheat stage. For example, by 1841, David Fife, a Manitoba farmer, found and popularized a type of hard spring wheat that he named “Red Fife”.

An excellent article in the Globe and Mail, “We are what we eat: Canada’s history in cuisines” by food historian Ian Mosby, explains the pivotal role Red Fife played in Canada. “By the 1870s, [it] had become the dominant wheat variety used by millers and bakers throughout Canada, defining the taste of bread in the decades after Confederation. Its adaptability to the unique climate of Western Canada meant that Red Fife would play a key role in facilitating the colonization of the prairies by Canadian settlers before 1900.”

That strain, later refined and combined with others, then produced “Marquis” wheat, developed at the start of the 20th century to grow in Canada. Says the Canadian Encyclopedia, “It has been shown that virtually every wheat variety produced in Canada over the past 100 years traces back to crosses made with Marquis. The high standards have been maintained. In fact, the highest-priced wheat class on the world market today is the hard red spring wheat (CWRS) from Canada.”

Canada has become the world’s sixth-largest producer and one of the largest exporters of wheat, annually producing an average of over 25 million tonnes and exporting around 15 million tonnes.

73 Five Roses cookbook
My mother’s well-worn Five Roses Flour cookbook. Photo: Kelley Teahen

Mosby’s cuisine article also tells us about the dominant presence of commercially produced flour in the Canadian marketplace: “There were nearly 650,000 copies of the first Five Roses Cookbook in circulation just two years after its 1913 publishing date. In other words, at least half of Canadian households had a copy.”

The copy I have from my mother, dated 1954 and dedicated “To the Housewives of Canada,” appears most-used by my mom in the pastry, pancake, and cookie sections, although the cookbook has recipes all manners of food, from jams to meat dishes and salads.

With big wheat can come big problems. As I write this post, the news is dominated by a recall of Robin Hood and several other smaller Western-based commercial wheat brands, due to e-coli contamination.

For the years I lived in London, Ontario, I was fortunate enough to get my flour from the Arva Flour Mills, located just a few miles north of London and whose products were available then at London organic or self-labelled “health food” stores.

73 machines
Historic threshing machines at the Arva Flour Mills. Photo: Mark Mooney

Since then, I have usually bought flour in smaller quantities from similar “health stores”, with the exception of the Christmas season, when I set aside my usual whole wheat for the white stuff to make shortbread and periheh, the name my Ukrainian mother used for dumpling-like “pierogies.”

I have never tackled breadmaking because we don’t eat much bread. The one exception is Irish Soda Bread. I could lie to you and say it’s an old family tradition from the Irish side of my family but, truth be told, I just learned to make it recently at a Toronto cooking class. You cut a deep cross into the dough before baking but it has nothing to do with the cross of Christ. You cut the X to allow faeries to escape, so the legend goes. I’d like to think my Arva Mills flour, which I’ll pick up on my next London trip, will come faerie-free — but one can never be too careful.

Irish Soda Bread
from Cyril Picard, MerryBerry Café, Toronto

Ingredients

1 lb all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons optional flavouring (we did fresh thyme and I recommend more than 2 teaspoons – this really gives the bread a lovely flavour)
55 grams of room-temperature butter
1.5 cups of buttermilk

Method

Preheat oven to 450 F.

In a large bowl, sift together flour and baking soda. Add salt, sugar, and flavouring.

Use your fingers or a pastry blender and work the flour into the butter until the mixture resembles a course meal.

Make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the buttermilk into it and gently fold the flour over the buttermilk using a wooden spoon or your fingers. Mix until just combined.

Roughly shape the dough into a bowl (flour your fingers!) and place on a floured surface. Knead just a few times to shape into a round loaf. Do not over-knead.

Place dough into a cast-iron pan. Make 1.5-inch deep cuts from side to side on the loaf, forming a cross.

Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 400 F and cook for an additional 25 minutes.

The bread is baked if, when you turn it over and knock on the bottom with your knuckles, it sounds hollow.

Let bread sit in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Enjoy it warm with salted butter.

Main photo: Mark Mooney

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. EA says:

    Very timely, as I’ve been looking for a soda bread recipe that I can trust. (But switching from imperial to metric, mid – list of ingredients? Will look to convert the butter quantity. ) Thanks, Kelley!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it was odd – but this chef always weighs his butter. I’ve taken a couple cooking classes from him now and for ingredients to weigh, he uses grams and for everything else, imperial measurements. It really is good but bland without the fresh thyme leaves mixed in.

      Liked by 1 person

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