From the flagstone floors to the flowers hanging from the ceiling, the contemporary decor to the stacks of baguettes that conjure an old French boulangerie, everything about the Restaurant Pearl Morissette (RPM) Bakehouse in Jordan is photogenic.
But RPM co-chef Daniel Hadida and the staff at the cafe offshoot of the acclaimed Niagara restaurant aren’t doing any of it to get on Instagram.
Instead, they hope all of it – those baguettes and the other baked goods, in particular – spark some conversation between customers and staff.
Ideally, that back-and-forth would include talk of the ingredients with which the day’s menu is made, including what flour was used in those baguettes and other loaves.
Hadida might tell you they’re made by baker Anthony Vieira with wheat called Flood Fife.
Never heard of it?
It’s a variety that came to be thanks to serendipity and the wisdom of farmer Chris Wooding, who grows and mills 250 varieties of wheat on his Ironwood Organics farm in eastern Ontario.
A quick science lesson to explain how Flood Fife came to be: Domesticated wheat has 600,000 genes. Humans have only 24,000 in comparison.
All those genes make wheat highly adaptable to the environment in which it grows, so if something causes it stress one season, it can turn redundant gene copies on or off to help it survive.
Fifteen years ago when Wooding started growing Red Fife wheat, a heritage variety that was the standard baking and milling grain in Canada in the late 1800s, he played around with the seed, exposing it to cold and forcing a new variety of winter wheat he calls Winter Rose Red Fife.
In 2017, a field of Winter Rose Red Fife expected to produce 408 kilograms of grain endured spring flooding. Rather than plow it under, Wooding made do with the 22.7 kg the season gave him instead, planting and replanting the seed he got from his harvest for each of the next three years in fields where flooding potential was high.
From those seed-saving and replanting efforts, Flood Fife wheat, the star ingredient Wooding said is used in many RPM Bakehouse staples, was born.
The one-line plot summary of this, however, is that Wooding’s efforts developing flood-tolerant wheat from a heritage variety are crucial to ensuring a sustainable food system, particularly in this era of unpredictable weather – and its effect on our food supply – brought about by climate change.
“A lot of the smaller-scale farmers will save seed, and in saving that seed, the seed will actually bio-adapt to local growing conditions and become stronger and more resilient,” Wooding said. “Less yield but more predictable and more stable.”
As it turns out, sustainable food systems are Hadida and RPM’s raisons d’être. Ditto for tight relationships with their farmer-suppliers, whom they visit regularly as a staff to learn from and form relationships that are more than transactional. So, too, is keeping staff working during the worst of the pandemic, which is why the RPM Bakehouse opened in the former De La Terre location sooner than planned.
“It’s sharing that with our customer base and getting people excited about it,” Hadida said. “The whole of it all is trying to connect people to a more sustainable, more thoughtful, holistic food system. That’s everything we do here. “
It’s helped along by Wooding and farmers like him who supply both RPM and the Bakehouse. Those 250 varieties of wheat Wooding grows and mills include some dating back as early as the 1600s. The most recent variety this retired systems analyst planted when he started farming 15 years ago was from 1930.
They aren’t the highest yielding varieties unlike more modern wheat. But, he explained, that actually benefits consumers, too.
“If the input prices go through the roof, so to the wheat prices, and so to food prices,” Wooding said. “Instead of six tons an acre, we get 1.3 tons an acre, but we can grow them much more frequently. We have no input costs. And because we plow all of our straw back in, we’re actually re-fertilizing our own ground with last year’s residue. “
Wooding’s “four mission words” are diversity, stability, resiliency and sustainability.
In a sense, RPM, which provided a critical supply chain outlet for Wooding during the pandemic, spells out each one of those tenets with the food it makes with his grains.
“The Bakehouse does it for passion and does it because they understand those feedback loops… in terms of environmental capital,” Wooding said. “They buy the grain from me because they not only know they’re getting good flour, but they’re also participating in hedgerow restoration and biodiversity. That’s what the flour represents. That’s what the Bakehouse represents. “
Still, it’s not as simple as Wooding growing and milling his wheat and Vieira throwing it in a mixer with some starter.
Vieira has to become familiar with the nuances of the grains, which can change from year to year, much like a wine vintage. That requires recipe testing before making those artful stacks of baguettes and loaves the Bakehouse sells Thursday through Sunday.
“They’re willing to champion that and get the grain and figure out what its flavors are, and how hot it should be baked, what the saturations are and moisture content in baking,” Wooding said. “You can imagine having the same vintage and you order a bag, and you’re guaranteed identical flour, identical performance, identical protein up until the next year when we get a new vintage.”
But again, that’s all part of the story Hadida and Bakehouse staff would like to tell you, photography for social media optional.
“It’s doing our best to continue to be triumphant during this extremely challenging time and understanding what our position is,” Hadida said.
“Getting the bakery up and rolling has allowed us to get a few people back to work, to have a focus on things, to continue to engage in our community. And most importantly to continue to act as an outlet for farmers who are producing all this amazing stuff. “