Mixing up Change, Part 2

Cliff Leir
December 03, 2007
Written by Cliff Leir
The tale continues of West Coast baker Cliff Leir’s adventures with Red Fife.
Editor’s note: In his previous column, Cliff Leir wrote about his introduction to the heritage wheat variety known as Red Fife and shared his hopes for the birth of a culture of food.

The path seemed clear to me. I had seen Salt Spring Flour Mill in action and returned with several varieties of wheat flour to try out. After a couple of weeks experimenting with different formulas and fermentation times for Red Fife, Parc, AC Barrie, and our usual Canada #1 Hard Red Spring, we found that they all baked a little differently but with consistently delicious results. We never did do a blind taste test but found the Red Fife to have a generally more “wheaty” flavour. After I did some calculations and made a number of phone calls, I informed Saskatchewan organic grain farmer Marc Loiselle that we’d use 50 tonnes of Red Fife a year. Next, I ordered a silo, auger, stone mill and sifter from Austria.

By the spring of 2004, our mill finally arrived. Marc was getting ready to plant most of his seed stock: enough to supply us for the year and enough to triple production for the following year. Until the harvest in the fall I arranged to purchase wheat from a local organic grain distributor. Photos of the summer fields sent from Marc were almost as exciting as seeing the first ultrasound images of a pregnant belly. There was a lot of anxious anticipation around this upcoming harvest.

Back at the shop I found out that milling consistent flour was a lot more difficult then I imagined. The shipments of wheat that came in from the distributor varied from the varieties I had tested before. Our loan payments for the milling equipment were taking a larger bite out of the cash flow than we anticipated (the gear runs in the $20,000 to $30,000 range). Every batch of flour was a little different than the last, causing much strife for my business partner, bakers and counter staff, who had to try to explain it all to the customers. The bread cultural revolution was not going as planned.

It was now harvest time and in Saskatchewan it had been wet for three weeks. Marc was unable to get the wheat off the fields. If he didn’t get a week of sun to dry the wheat crop soon, the snow would come and it would all be lost. Eventually, everyone was relieved to hear that the crop had been successfully harvested. The first harvest was cleaned just in time to take over to Terra Madre, a conference set up by Slow Food for the first time in 2004 and that is happening again this fall in Torino. Marc and I finally meet face-to-face, along with almost 5000 other farmers and producers of foods of distinction from around the world. Marc and I were there as members of the “Red Fife Community,” to share what we were doing and to learn more from others. It was overwhelming and inspiring to know that so many other individuals were participating in processes to restore food community relationships and better understand their larger relationship with food and the earth. This is the goal of Terra Madre. I returned home inspired and full of hope.

Meanwhile, back at the shop everyone who hadn’t gone to Europe was still very stressed out. The mill had had a few problems while I was away and our grain supply was running low. I asked Marc to ship out a load of grain right away and it arrived just in time. We started using the wholemeal flour right away. The loaves were definitely tastier, so we worked on the structure and the height of the loaf, providing an overall successful transition. Based on the previous “white” flour we were milling, I determined this flour needed at least 10 days of aging for enough oxidization to occur for proteins to “mellow out” and provide us with good, strong, elastic and extensible doughs. After the 10 days were up, I made a quick test dough and fermented it for a few hours (all our breads use only wild yeast for leavening) – so far so good. I formed it into a 1-kg boule and baked it an hour and a half later. Baking this loaf of bread was like baking a loaf for the first time: I was extremely focused on each step, tasting the dough at each stage, resisting the urge to peek in the oven and check, knowing I had to wait for the crust to set before opening the door and releasing the steam. Worst of all was waiting for the loaf to fully cool before cutting it open as the aroma continued to permeate the air.

After all that, it seemed like the most beautiful and delicious loaf of bread I had ever eaten. Satisfied with the new flour, I left a note for the morning baker to go ahead and use the new flour: “It’s great!” I wrote.
 I went to sleep that night looking forward to seeing the new batch of bread on the shelves early the next morning.

At 3 am, my cell phone went off. I hate this, because even worse than waking up at 3am, is knowing that there’s something significantly wrong at the bakery.

“Cliff?” I hear as I hold the phone up to my ear. “All that white bread with the new flour is coming out of the oven like pancakes!”

Stay tuned to the October issue of Bakers Journal to find out what happens next...

Cliff Leir sold his half of Wild Fire Bread and Pastry in the spring of 2005 and is now building ovens and baking bread for his family and friends while planning his next bakery opening in summer 2007 in Victoria B.C. Last year, Marc Loiselle and his family harvested 140 metric tonnes of Red Fife. Cliff is still working with Marc and other farmers and bakers to strengthen farmer-baker relations. Contact Cliff at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with comments or questions.

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