Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is Handmade Better?

Not according to my friend's sister, an opinionated artist who says machines make goods cheaper, faster and more consistently. "Why would anyone want to pay more for handmade? You can't even tell the difference."

She has a point.

But, as a result we live in a disposable society. There are incentives to buy new cell phones only after a year. We are forced to retire capable computers that can't run the latest software. A very successful Swedish company sells furniture we assemble and after a few years we'll see on the curb waiting for trash day.

It wasn't always this way. I have a couple of 100 year old pocket watches that are still keeping time and cameras from the '40's that are clicking away to prove it. These garage-sale-gems were built in a era where things were made to last, often for a lifetime.

When did we suddenly move away from owning objects for decades? Are we better now for it? Or does it make these things inferior?

These are some questions I asked myself after speaking to Sarra in her studio at the Distillary. (I found a recent video (click here) on Toronto Standard showing the behind the scenes of her unique textile business). I was blown away by her dedication and passion to her craft.

Let's throw out the debate for now, as we won't solve it here. But rather focus on the benefit by connecting with these driven artists and the items they choose to make whether it be a handbag, a piece of cheese, or even crackers. And to be reminded we are creative creatures who were driven to take chisel to stone to make a tool or piece of art just may inspire others to do the same, or support those who do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Evelyn's Crackers: Slow Food Spotlight

By Jennifer on March 28th, 2011 (from Slow Food Toronto Newsletter)

Interview with Edmund Rek and Dawn Woodward

Edmund Rek and Dawn Woodward are passionate about showcasing Ontario heritage grains and the farmers who produce them. As Chefs and local food advocates, Ed and Dawn have created Evelyn’s Crackers – delicious, artisan crackers made from local, organic, heritage grains. Their line has now expanded to include cookies and muesli.
In 2003 Slow Food Canada adopted Red Fife wheat as Canada’s first presidium in the Ark of Taste. As a key ingredient in many of their crackers, Dawn and Ed have been instrumental in bringing Red Fife wheat from field to table.

Lea Phillips met with Ed and Dawn to discuss Evelyn’s Crackers and their work in the local, organic food community.

Tell me about the philosophy behind Evelyn’s Crackers?

Ed: It’s really all about the grain. We started out with Red Fife wheat and the crackers were born from there. It is such a fabulous grain – earthy, nutty, fantastic flavour. About five years ago there were only two kilos of it left and we have been able to bring it back. It originated in Scotland and was brought to the Peterborough area by David Fife in the 1840s – it flourished here and in the Prairies for many years. Over time, other hybrid grains took over and Red Fife was almost obliterated.

Initially a handful of farmers started growing it, now that number has increased significantly. Small and large bakeries are using it – so it is actually moving from into mainstream use from being nearly extinct five years ago.
As a heritage wheat, Red Fife will adapt to a variety of growing conditions and the elements – unlike factory-farmed grains. It is a very important to preserve these heritage grains to ensure agricultural diversity for the future.

Where do you source the ingredients for Evelyn’s Crackers?

Dawn: We work directly with local Ontario farmers and small producers. Currently, we are using six organic heritage grains: rye, spelt, buckwheat, Red Fife, whole wheat and barley. Much of our flour comes from John and Patricia Hastings of Madoc, descendents of the founders of Hastings County where Madoc is located. They grow Red Fife on their organic farm and stone-mill it right there. Once a week they drive into Toronto to deliver the flour to artisan bakers. Our other supplier is Hope Eco Farms in Aylmer. These farmers are incredibly dedicated to growing heritage grains, sustainable agriculture and long-term agricultural diversity.

For other ingredients we work with local farmers and producers as well – Monteforte Dairy and Dancing Bee Apiaries, Sylvia Stoddart to name a few.

How did you get started?

Dawn: We emigrated here from the U.S. with the idea of having our own business and being involved with farmers’ markets. We were working in catering and consulting when I found out about Red Fife wheat from Naomi Duguid. I loved the taste and immediately starting experimenting and making bread. I began thinking about how I could bring Red Fife products to market. I noticed that the farmers’ markets already had bakers selling breads made from Red Fife. Also, bread making is very time-consuming and requires expensive equipment. So I started thinking about crackers made with Red Fife and began making them with a friend.

We brought our crackers to the Brickworks Farmers’ Market in December of 2008 – the last market day for that year. Among the many people that sampled our crackers was Elizabeth Harris – Founder/Manager of the Brickworks and Riverdale farmers’ markets. Elizabeth loved the crackers and gave samples to Chefs Jamie Kennedy and Anthony Rose – they were impressed!

The next spring we were given a spot at the market and have been growing ever since.

Ed: From there the ripple effect took hold. In a matter of a few months, we had a Globe and Mail article written on Evelyn’s Crackers. In addition to the Brickworks, we got involved in the The Stop, Trinity Bellwoods and Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Markets.

There is such a strong local food community here in Toronto – they have been incredibly supportive from the beginning. Word of mouth really helped us get going.
Soon we were in food shops – the first being The Healthy Butcher and About Cheese. Now we are in over 36 stores throughout Toronto – to find us visit

How did you come up with the name Evelyn’s Crackers?

Ed: We named it after our daughter, Evelyn. It was such a wonderful and important experience to name a child, that it just made sense that anything else we named would be after her. She was two when we started – a two-year-old is so intense in everything they do – walking, jumping, talking. We started the crackers with the intensity and wonder of a two-year-old. As Evelyn is getting older, I realize that what we are trying to do is create a change in the food system with her in mind. This is for her.

You have some really fun names for your crackers – Currant in the Rye, Slightly Seedy Crackers – to name a few. How do you come up with the names?

Dawn: We usually brainstorm them together during our product development phase. Our goal is to find a name that is memorable, tells the story of the cracker and is funny – but not too cheesy.

Tell me a little about your backgrounds and roles within the business.

Dawn: I started cooking in New Orleans about 20 years ago and quickly realized I didn’t want to be a chef, so I moved into pastry. I then did an apprenticeship in Germany and got involved with artisanal breads. From there I got a position with Bread Alone, an artisanal bakery in upstate New York. I initially came to Toronto as a Consultant for Ace Bakery when they started their artisanal bread line. Throughout my career I have travelled extensively and have developed an appreciation for food wherever I go.

We do the product development stage together. I come up with the recipes and Ed is my sounding board. As a Chef, Ed has a very fine-tuned palate and we are able to make adjustments to the recipes based on his input.

On Mondays we spend the day making dough together. For the rest of the week, I do the baking and Ed does deliveries and demos throughout the city.

Together we have taken the artisanal bread concept and applied it to crackers.
If anyone is interested in learning about making artisan crackers, we would be happy to have you spend a day or two in our kitchen. If interested, contact us via our website

Ed: I started in the restaurant business when I was 15, and stayed in it in one way or another. I went to culinary school and worked in many fine restaurants and hotels. I was one of the first chefs to bring in organic meat. I did it because you could taste the difference – naturally-raised, locally-grown, organic. As a Chef, I was always interested in getting the most flavour. Initially I did it mostly for taste. Dawn is more focused on the political side of things. So when we met, we were clearly a match.

When I started participating in farmers’ markets, I learned more about food and how it is produced than I had working in a restaurant. It comes down to being close to the source of your food. We all benefit by supporting farmers.

We want to help educate and promote the local community. The crackers are a great way for many people to start connecting with local food – an easy way to understand the field to table concept and getting closer to the source of your food.

You have been active in Toronto farmers’ markets for the last three years – tell me what changes you have observed?

Ed: Farmers’ markets are a great way to connect with like-minded people and give consumers better options. I’ve noticed over time that more and more people are participating in farmers’ markets – both vendors and attendees – the growth has been tremendous. Consumers are asking more questions – such as, “what are you feeding your animals”, “ are your vegetables organically grown”. These are very important questions.

We’re trying to promote the idea of being closer to the producers of your food – meeting farmers, talking with them, buying as close to the source as possible.

How do you introduce people to Evelyn’s Crackers?

Dawn: I usually start with talking about the taste and the crunch – very different from a conventional cracker. A taste test usually says it all.

Our crackers are nutritionally rich, whole grain and filled with good calories – you really only need a few to feel satisfied. The gluten and protein in these heritage grains are easier to digest and absorb, therefore many people with gluten sensitivities can enjoy Evelyn’s Crackers. Also, our grains are organic, so no fungicide or pesticide residue.

Outside of farmers’ markets, what are some other ways we can source local, sustainably produced foods?

Ed: There are many ways to build relationships with farmers outside of farmers’ markets. We worked with a farmer to raise chickens – we bought 40 heritage breed chickens and partnered with a farmer to raise them for us. We’ll eat these over the next six months or so. By developing these types of partnerships, you don’t have to rely on conventional stores.

Also, getting involved in a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) is a great way to stay connected with farmers all year round.

What does the future hold for Evelyn’s Crackers?

Dawn: We have recently moved into cookies and granola. Our focus going forward will be to continue to utilize local grains in as many formats as possible, other than bread. So more cookies, granola, moving into butter-based cookies and cereals
Being part of the local food movement is key for us – educating, spreading the word and creating products from local ingredients.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Heritage Breeds. Are They Worth It?

This past Spring we bought some Buff Orpingtons, a heritage breed of chicken, to be raised by our farmer friend. By choosing from a list of endangered foods our search for tasty local chicken would soon be over. We ran into a few challenges along the way that made us question if our little adventure was worth it.

In May, I received a phone call from our soon-to-be surrogate family farmer. The chicks were do to arrive at the airport (This particular breed, found on the Slow Food Arc of Taste had to be flown in from Alberta.) and I was asked if I could pick them up? It just so happened I was picking up my mother-in-law at the airport at the same time the birds were expected to arrive. So, Evelyn and I jumped into the car and off we went.

Arriving on time, we hurried to get Grammy. "Great to see you!" "Where are your bags?" "We have to pick up some chicks!" She took the news in stride knowing quite well of our efforts with local food and farmers. In fact, she grew up on a farm in South Carolina and tells great stories of grudgingly gathering eggs and her failed attempt to wring a neck. With more experiences on a farm than one can imagine, we were in very good company if things got out of hand.

We drove to another part of the airport and quickly entered a large industrial building to pick up our package. A little unsure of our qualifications, we approached the busy counter. Soon we heard the unmistakable cacophony of high pitched cheeps. I had a huge grin on my face as I carried the white box back to the car. Evelyn held the day olds and squealed several times after the tiny beaks touched her fingers through the holes in the sides. I think everyone but Grammy were dying to take the lid off.

Living in an apartment, our bath tub was where we did the unveiling. Two dozen golden puff balls with tiny legs and black eyes were climbing onto each another, scratching and pecking. Luckily, I found a heat lamp at a local hardware store along with some chick-feed. We put in some fresh newspaper into the box and gave them tiny cups of water. The cheeping was non-stop, beautiful and life affirming. They became louder each time we checked on them, which was often. What a wonderful responsibility to have one afternoon.

A few months later we visited the chicks on the farm. The birds were much larger now and had beautiful copper-colored plumage. Once inside the pen we tried to get closer. Right away, they ran to the other side from where we stood as quick as a breeze through tall grass.

Now, Evelyn is a bit of pigeon chaser. I was trying to photograph the chicken experience and she was in full pigeon mode chasing them from one side of the pen to the other. Watching her running in circles, laughing hysterically and getting out of breath was priceless. I know where the expression "scared as a chicken" comes from as they did everything short of jumping over the fence to get away.

Looking for reassurance, all we heard was, "There's no meat on the birds. They're too skinny!" Starting to have doubts ourselves, we replied, "Just wait, you'll see."

Come September, the inaugural chicken was cooked slowly using a cast iron pan and in the oven on a bed of potatoes, carrots and onions. After an hour and half, or so, it was removed from the pan and allowed to cool. The kale, which we relish this time of year, was added with garlic and cooked in the same pan.

The chicken had a lean earthy flavor that was and quite pleasant, but a little tough. I didn't mind the chewiness at first. But, if we had a guest to dinner would they be as tolerant? Probably not, since it was getting to the point of almost making your jaw tired. Not a lot of breast meat and not a lot on the legs either, but we ate well.

This chicken dinner had been planned for months and as a result, I felt a kinship to the chicken and to the farmer who raised them. Just as many people during the turn of the last century grew their own food and were self-reliant. They ate for survival and not so much for comfort. I don't think we are that far away that we can't think about our food in the same vein, now and again.

We are poaching the whole birds, now and are making wonderful stews and soups. We eat more meals with one chicken and the slow cooking them in a broth makes the meat quite tender and the flavors are still delicious. Overall, it has been very rewarding and something for us to look forward to, not only during the summer, but all year round. So great to be closer to the source of our food and participate in the process.

Mmmm, what shall we try next?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cracker Partners

Here is the newest list if locations throughout Toronto and a few places outside of town, where you can find Evelyn's Crackers:

1. About Cheese, Church St.
2. Healthy Butcher, Queen St West
3. Healthy Butcher, Eglinton Ave.
4. Big Carrot, Danforth Ave
5. Cheese Boutique, Ripley St.
6. Scheffler’s Deli and Cheese at St Lawrence Markek
7. McEwan’s, Don Mills Shopping Center
8. Pusateris, Avenue Rd, Yorkville & Bayview Village
9. Thin Blue Line, Roncesvalles Ave
10. Creemore 100 Mile Store, Creemore, Ontario
11. Urban Harvest on Sarauen St
12. Mabel’s Bakery Roncesvalles Ave
13. Ravine Vineyard & Estate Winery St. David, Ontario
14. Cheese Shoppe On Locke, Hamilton, On
15. Grain Bean and Curd, Dundas St.
16. Leslieville Cheese Market, Queen St East & Queen St West
17. Fiesta Farms on Christy St
18. Whole Foods, Yorkville
19. Village Cheese Monger, Liberty Vliiage
20. Noah’s on Bloor St & Yonge St
21. The Spice Trader on Queen St West
22. Organic Boutique Queen St West
23. Alex Farms Beaches Queen St East
24. Culinariun, Mt Pleasant Ave
25. Provenance Regional Cuisine on Palmerston, Ave
26. LPK’s Culinary Groove, Queen St. Easy
27. Fromagerie on College St.
28. Chabichou Fine Foods on Harbord St.
29. Junction Fromagerie on Dundas West
30. Dags and Willow Collingwood, Ontario
31. The Friendly Butcher Danforth Ave and Yonge Ave
32. Black Dog Village Pub Bayfield, Ontario
33. Art of Cheese on Kingston Rd.
34. Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. Picton, Ontario
35. Monforte Dairy Ltd. Stratford, Ontario
36. Ciboulette et Cie Midland, Ontario

A wonderful list of merchants! Thank you for your support and helping us build a local community, one cracker at a time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Red Fife Graham Cracker, Sinful

As noted in Wikapedia:

"The graham cracker (pronounced /ˈɡræm/ or /ˈɡreɪm/ or /ˈɡreɪ.əm/) was developed in 1829 in Bound Brook, New Jersey, by Presbyterian minister Rev. Sylvester Graham. Though called a cracker, it is sweet rather than salty and so bears some resemblance to a cookie—digestive biscuits are the closest approximation. The true graham cracker is made with graham flour, a combination of fine-ground white flour and coarse-ground wheat bran and germ. Graham crackers are often used for making s'mores and pie crusts.

Graham crackers were originally marketed as "Dr. Graham's Honey Biskets" and were conceived of as a health food as part of the Graham Diet, a regimen to suppress what he considered unhealthy carnal urges, the source of many maladies according to Graham. Reverend Graham would often lecture about the adverse effects of masturbation or "self-abuse" as it was commonly called. One of his many theories was that one could curb one's sexual appetite by eating bland foods. Another man who held this belief was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flakes cereal.

Many modern "graham crackers" are made of the refined, bleached white flour to which the Rev. Graham was implacably opposed. Some modern commercial graham crackers are no longer considered health food, but have remained popular as a snack food and breakfast cereal with greater amounts of sugar and other sweeteners than in the original recipe, and far less graham flour, often with no whole-wheat flour whatsoever. Cinnamon or chocolate may be added to enhance the flavor of the crackers. Technically, crackers are not really graham crackers unless they are made with graham flour, which is a hard whole-wheat flour in which the constituent bran, germ, and endosperm have been ground separately, the first two coarsely and the third finely. Cinnamon, not considered a true ingredient of graham crackers, was added for those who did not enjoy the bland taste of graham crackers."

Red Fife whole wheat was a natural choice for us to use and we find it has the opposite effect to Graham's original intention. Especially when dipped into melted chocolate and added to toasted marshmallows.

Why Red Fife? Well, this heritage wheat represents traditional methods of farming that involve human elements in its growing and harvesting, almost in artisan ways. These heritage grains naturally go against all methods of modern farming by growing at uneven hights (virtually making large scale harvesting impossible), having the ability to plant seeds from this year's harvest for next year (no need to buy seeds) and because the entire grain is ground where natural proteins and vitamins are present, (which are often added to sifted grain). Not to mention whole milled grains are more perishable therefore ground in smaller batches and as a result are fresher. All great reasons to source heritage grains, even better to find local and organic ones.