The Little Kernel That Could
The Legacy of David Fife
by Judith Finlayson
Peterborough’s County Road 4, also known as David Fife Line, is a long way from New York’s trendy Tenth Avenue. Symbolically, it’s an even greater distance from #85, the street address of Del Posto, one of the priciest restaurants in that city. In 1842, when Ontario farmer David Fife first planted the seeds a friend had sent from Glasgow, he could not have imagined that their descendent wheat—now known as Red Fife—would appear on a menu developed by Mario Batali, one of North America’s top chefs and restaurateurs. Del Posto’s Red Fife Pappardelle in Butter may represent the first time the name of a variety of wheat has appeared on a menu, and it tells an inspiring story: the little kernel that could.
Growing conditions in Otonabee Township weren’t particularly suitable for Siberian wheat, the variety local farmers were producing prior to 1842. Yields were low and it was susceptible to rust and sensitive to frost, so growers were highly motivated to find a replacement. The Glasgow seeds, likely a strain of Ukrainian Halychanka, bode well for survival in our northern climate. Unfortunately, perambulating cows ate most of the first year’s crop. Thanks to the quick-witted Mrs. Fife, three precious heads were saved and the following year she sowed the remaining seed alongside a plot of conventional Siberian. The old standard succumbed to rust. The Glasgow seeds, which were planted later and matured earlier, produced rust-free wheat and a greater yield.
Soon farmer Fife was supplying his neighbours with seed, and the local agricultural society was distributing seed to its members. By the time David Fife passed away in 1877, Red Fife wheat, named for him as well as for its distinctive red kernel, had made its way across Ontario, into the northern United States, and as far west as the Prairies, where it was enthusiastically embraced. In fact, many agricultural historians believe that Canada’s reputation as a breadbasket can be traced back to Red Fife, and that its cultivation paved the way for the opening of the West.
“The glorious Fife,” as it was often called, reigned supreme until the early 1900s, when its progeny, Marquis—which ripened ten days earlier—ascended the throne. But Red Fife remains the ancestor of virtually all wheat grown in Canada. Without the efforts of seed-saver activist Sharon Rempel, however, this Canadian artifact might have completely disappeared.
In 1989, as part of a heritage wheat project, Rempel acquired a pound of precious seed from a Saskatchewan plant breeder who was retiring. She planted Red Fife at the historic grist mill in Keremeos, British Columbia, along with six other historically significant varieties that had also fallen from grace. In the world of high-yield, high-input industrial farming, there is little place for Red Fife, a “landrace” or “traditional” seed known for its flavour and its adaptability to a wide variety of growing conditions. Its unique qualities are abhorred in the commercial wheat world, which values high yield and standardization, and virtually dismisses the significance of flavour.
When Sharon Rempel planted her seeds she had a vision: someday Red Fife would be grown again commercially. To a considerable degree, that image has materialized. Red Fife is produced by small-scale farmers—mostly, if not exclusively, organic—who grow it outside the Wheat Board’s tracking system. The movement originated in the West and from there gradually spread across the country. In 2007, approximately five hundred tons of Red Fife was harvested, from as far west as the Gulf Islands in British Columbia to eastern Nova Scotia. Interestingly, it didn’t return to County Road 4 until 2005 when four women, all of whom live and farm on David Fife Line, decided to resurrect this forgotten chapter in their local history.
“We realized we lived on David Fife Line and very few people had any sense of what that meant,” commented Helen Knibb, a member of the Fife Line Sisterhood, as they christened themselves. “We felt compelled to acknowledge our agricultural history; it’s part of our heritage.”
They contacted Saskatchewan farmer Marc Loiselle (http://loiselle.ma.googlepages.com), who became interested in Red Fife in 2001, and has made it his mission to provide seeds for growers across the country. Virtually all the Red Fife seed planted in Ontario comes from him, although local farmers are starting to produce their own. The Sisterhood planted one-and-a-quarter acres their first year, and, with the help of local farmer Peter Leahy, who was growing a small amount himself, produced a second crop, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to grow the grain on a much larger scale and bowed out of the business. Leahy’s interest was whetted and he has gradually increased the quantity he grows at Merrylynd, his certified organic family farm just outside Peterborough, Ontario. Last year he planted fifty acres, a relatively large quantity in the Red Fife world.
Like others I spoke with, Leahy says he doesn’t have enough to keep up with the demand. “People from Jamie Kennedy’s called me recently,” he told me in early April, “but I couldn’t give them any flour. I need to keep some for seed.” At least two other farmers are growing Red Fife in Ontario—Patricia Hastings at the Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) in Madoc and Sean McGivern of Saugeen Specialty Grains in the Owen Sound area.
The largest market for Red Fife flour is artisanal bread bakers, who love its distinctive flavour and reddish brown crust. Supply permitting, they have been baking with it at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar in Toronto, and it turns up at top restaurants across the country, including Bishop’s in Vancouver, Calgary’s River Café, and Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island. At Thuet in Toronto, chef Marc Thuet is taking a leaf out of Mario Batali’s book and working his magic with “Red Fife organic house-made lasagnette.”
There’s little doubt that much of the interest from those in the know stems from Slow Food International’s 2004 Terra Madre event in Turin, Italy. The previous year, the Vancouver Island chapter of Slow Food nominated Red Fife for the Ark of Taste, the equivalent of the academy award for food. It made the cut in 2004 and now ranks as Canada’s sole entry on this international list, which recognizes historically significant products of exceptional quality. Throughout the four-day Terra Madre conference, Cliff Leir of Victoria’s Wildfire Bakery baked his legendary sourdough bread at a bakery in Turin, using flour provided by Marc Loiselle. It was an incredible success.
“I was blown away by the reaction,” comments Loiselle. “Here we were in Italy where people know something about good bread, and they were saying, ‘This is the best bread I’ve ever tasted’.”
The word spread quickly. Glen Roberts of Anson Mills, a company based in Columbia, South Carolina, that specializes in growing organic heirloom grains, heard about Red Fife from friends in Maine who are artisan bakers. They were wild about its crisping tendencies as well as its flavour. “I’m in the business of resurrecting lost foods,” he comments, and the response in Italy, plus the fact that it represented the work of a well-respected seeds man, convinced me to pursue Red Fife.” He now imports seed from Loiselle and is growing it as winter wheat in Columbia and on the South Carolina coast. He is also looking at expanding production.
It was Roberts who sent it to Mario Batali, and he has tasted the finished product at Del Posto. “They feature it straight up: basically just noodles with butter, but it’s extraordinary,” he notes.
Roberts says there is a real buzz about Red Fife in the US, not only from East Coast chefs, but also from flour producers. In his opinion, “People are responding to the quality.”
While I don’t doubt that’s true, having spent time with some of the people involved and having feasted on bread baked by Astrid Manske, a member of the Sisterhood who grinds her own flour in a home mill, I can’t shake the sense there is something almost other-worldly about this agreeable grain. It has an aura of magic, or perhaps even Amazing Grace. Appropriately, the words of that Christian hymn proclaim, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Welcome back, Red Fife.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer, 2008 issue of Edible Toronto magazine (www.edibletoronto.com).
After a long career as an author, journalist, editor, speechwriter, and consultant, Judith Finlayson decided to transform her passionate love of cooking and interest in the culture of food into a second career. Her latest book, The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook, which was published in 2008, focuses on educating home cooks about the joys and health benefits of cooking with whole grains. In addition to cookbooks, Judith is the author of four other books including The New Woman’s Diary: A Journal for Women in Search of Themselves and Trailblazers: Women Talk About Changing Canada. Judith, her husband, and daughter live in Toronto, Ontario. Her website is www.judithfinlayson.com.