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Chef Jonathan Chovancek cooks with Canadian-produced chickpeas and lentils at Café Medina in Vancouver. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Chef Jonathan Chovancek cooks with Canadian-produced chickpeas and lentils at Café Medina in Vancouver. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Global Food security

Canadian-grown dry goods are next big thing on locavore menu Add to ...

This article is part of Globe B.C.’s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series.

At Café Medina, a trendy brunch bistro in downtown Vancouver, chef Jonathan Chovancek is committed to serving fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible: Swiss chard and squash grown at UBC Farm, charcuterie cured by Oyama Sausage Co., pork belly from Two Rivers Specialty Meats and coffee roasted at 49th Parallel.

The chef’s list of suppliers is fairly typical among conscientious restaurants in a city where the majority of diners are willing to pay more for local products, a trend that has been well documented by market research, including last year’s BMO Food Survey.

What makes Café Medina stand out from the locavore pack is its rare selection of Canadian dry goods. The restaurant’s golden quinoa, chickpeas and wheat berries – essential staples for a pan-Mediterranean menu that features hummus and tabouleh in several dishes – are grown by family farmers and co-operatives in Saskatchewan. They’re packaged and distributed by a new Vancouver company called GRAIN, which aims to give dry goods the same sustainable star treatment as local produce, fish and meat.

“The quality of these chickpeas are incredible,” says Mr. Chovancek, raving over their big size and buttery texture when cooked.

“But it’s more than just taste,” he notes. “Everyone talks about the origins of their fish and looks for sustainable alternatives. It’s time we started looking at other products, too.”

It would be easy for the chef to find cheaper chickpeas. He chooses to buy Canadian because GRAIN offers agricultural crops that appeal to his social conscience. “We want to support Canadian farms and companies that are doing something to counteract the truly non-sustainable agricultural system that is happening in South America.”

Grains, seeds and pulses are a vast dry-goods category that encompasses everything from lentils to amaranth and all the sexy, high-protein, low-fat superfoods. Thanks to health-conscious celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow, these previously musty vegan staples have been catapulted from the bulk bins of health stores to the front aisles of Whole Foods.

But where do they come from? This is an issue that has vexed ethical foodies. Take quinoa, for instance. The seed’s increasing popularity has caused its price to triple in the past five years.

While bringing economic prosperity to growers in Bolivia and Peru, global demand has made the traditional staple unaffordable for peasants in the Andes. The conversation went viral last year when The Guardian published an article blaming first-world vegans for third-world hunger.

“We grow so many of these great products right here in Canada,” says GRAIN co-founder Shira McDermott, who is betting her business on dry goods becoming the next foodie frontier. “Nobody knows about them.”

A lifelong vegetarian, Ms. McDermott has eaten far more garbanzo beans than the average consumer. But a few years ago, when her friend Janna Bishop came back from her family’s farm in Saskatchewan with a sack of dried chickpeas, Ms. McDermott, a former gourmet grocery merchandiser, was blown away.

“These are absolutely amazing,” she said. “Why can’t we buy them here?”

Thus germinated GRAIN, a wholesale company that packages and distributes top-quality, nutrient-rich Canadian-grown pulses, seeds and grains to restaurants and retailers. In January, it will begin milling whole-grain flours. Co-founded by the two friends earlier this year, it seeks to address the missing link in the farm-to-table movement and close the last gap in supply-chain transparency.

“British Columbians know about Pemberton beef, Chilliwack corn, Abbotsford blueberries and Okanagan peaches, but few can say where their flour is milled or where their wheat is farmed,” she explains.

“We’re trying to bring romance to a critical area of our food supply that hasn’t had its moment in the spotlight.”

Their timing couldn’t be better for both supply and demand.

On the demand side, the Business Development Bank of Canada predicts that “health mania” along with “made in Canada” are the two major “game-changing” consumer trends that will dominate the food scene for the foreseeable future.

On the supply side, historical barriers in the supply chain are finally easing up. The reason you don’t see many wheat growers at the local farmers market is because most pulse and grain farmers aren’t responsible for marketing, selling and transporting their crops. Because the crops need to be cleaned and sorted, they require centralized stocking locations. The food becomes a commodity and passes through the hands of multiple corporations before it reaches the market. Most of Canada’s pulses and special crops – an estimated 70 per cent, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – are exported.

In addition, the Canadian Wheat Board was historically responsible for stockpiling wheat, oats and barley. It was illegal for Prairie farmers to sell their crops to anyone else. Farmers did have the option to buy it back from the Wheat Board if they wanted to sell to a specific customer, but few did. The dismantling of the Wheat Board has created a new opportunity for farm-to-table grains.

Bob Wallace, Ms. Bishop’s stepfather, is a third-generation farmer from Tyner, Sask. He and his brother, Lorne, operate Aldor Farms, where they primarily grow red spring wheat, Laird lentils, durum and peas. About 90 per cent of their production is destined for export.

Five years ago, when the price for chickpeas was on the rise, they tried growing it as an experimental crop. Mr. Wallace remembers going to Nutters, a bulk-food store in nearby Swift Current. He and his father looked askance at the bulk bin of chickpeas. They were small, off-coloured and pocked with little black spots that indicate disease.

“The stuff we grow on the farm looks better,” his father said to the store manager. “Why don’t you sell them here?”

The manager was indignant. “All our stuff comes from a central warehouse in Vancouver,” Mr. Wallace recalls him saying. “These chickpeas are supposed to be the best. They come from Turkey.”

He and his brother no longer grow chickpeas. The price bottomed out. And although most of their crops are still exported, a small amount of their red spring wheat and wheat berries is now distributed by his stepdaughter through GRAIN and served at Café Medina.

“I’m glad someone finally did it,” Mr. Wallace says. “People want to know where their food comes from. This was a missing link in Canada.”

What are dry goods?

Legumes

Legumes are plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. It includes alfalfa, clover, fresh peas, lupins, mesquite, soy and peanuts. When growing, legumes fix nitrogen into the soil, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizer.

Pulses

Part of the legume family, pulse refers to the dried seed. Common varieties include dried peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas. They are rich in fibre and protein and contain virtually no fat.

Quinoa

Although usually considered a whole grain, quinoa is actually a seed that can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley.

Special Crops

In Canada, special crops include buckwheat, canary seed, forages, ginseng, herbs (medicinal plants), spices, industrial hemp, mustard seed, safflower seed, seeds (for sowing) and sunflower seeds.

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