Food is one of those rare areas where lifetime passions can be born in
early childhood. Such is definitely the case for Anna Olson, co-owner
and co-founder of Olson Foods and Bakery in St. Catharines, Ont.
By Clíona M. Reeves
Food is one of those rare areas where lifetime passions can be born in early childhood. Such is definitely the case for Anna Olson, co-owner and co-founder of Olson Foods and Bakery in St. Catharines, Ont.
“I’ve been baking since I was a little kid,” she says. “My mother used to get out miscellaneous ingredients and my friend Stephanie and I made what my mother called gourmet goo. It was inedible, but we made her bake it anyway so we could watch the chocolate chips melt.”
Later, cooking and baking with her grandmother forged a strong connection between food and family and relaxation.
“After a very stressful day at work when I was in banking, I was up at three in the morning making banana muffins,” Olson says. “Not because I wanted to eat banana muffins but because it was the only thing that was going to calm me down. It takes just enough concentration that you can’t focus on other things, and at the end of the process, wow, I have something.”
Love of food prompted her to change careers, turning her love into her profession, becoming a professional chef, business owner, television host of “Sugar” and “Fresh” on the Food Network Canada, and author of several cookbooks, including In the Kitchen with Anna, released in October 2008.
How does she keep her skills honed? “Just don’t stop,” Olson advises. “You can never sit back and think there’s some plateau you can reach and think that’s it, that’s all there is to know. It’s amazing how much you learn from students and apprentices, by the questions they ask. It constantly challenges you to go out and find the answers. When you actually have to articulate why something behaves the way it does or go find the answer, then you all learn together.”
Trends in Baking
The biggest trend Olson sees is the declining low-carb craze. “Though I do believe there are people out there who do not eat a lot of carbs, I think people have stopped looking for ‘the substitution of’. If you’re going to have bread, have bread. And if you’re not going to have bread, you don’t have bread, but you’re not looking for low-carb bread.”
Perhaps bread’s staying power is due to its worldwide presence. “It’s the cornerstone of our food culture. There’s always some fundamental grain-based product, and I think that goes back historically to the hunter-gatherer. When the hunting’s slim, well, you’ve got the gathering, and you can make grain, you can make flour from virtually anything, whether it’s a protein flour, like chickpea flour for papadums, or a wheat-based flour, or corn or rice.”
Olson also sees among her customers growing interest in buying locally grown foods in season, especially at farmers’ markets. “I recognize the privilege of where I am. We have this microclimate that just suits a vast array of produce: apricots and cherries and peaches. It may be harder in Edmonton and Quebec City and Newfoundland, but there’s always something locally produced and that we should be proud of. In this day and age of consideration of carbon miles, food safety, if you can put a name or face behind who is creating your food, if not yourself, then that’s of vital importance.”
At the same time, Olson considers it strange that we refer to buying locally as a trend. “Before mass refrigeration and freezing and all of those things, that’s the only way we cooked,” she explains. “So sourcing ingredients from long-distance is the trend that’s faded. We’re coming back to where we started.”
Whatever the trend, it takes a while for it to get from the innovators to the mainstream. She cites chipotle mayo in restaurant advertising, remarking that she and her husband had been using chipotle peppers 10 years earlier, and about two years ago, the peppers began appearing in grocery stores.
“What may have been new to us as professionals five years ago takes that long to hit the mainstream population. I’ve been playing with spelt flour for quite some time, and people just now are becoming comfortable enough to try it.”
Art and Food Safety
Growing interest in artisan bread prompted Olson and her husband, Michael, a chef professor with the Niagara Culinary Institute, to expand their business beyond the St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie locations to include Olson Foods at Ravine in St. Davids, Ont.
“We’ve partnered with a family that owns a beautiful vineyard property in St. Davids, and Erin Turcke is baking true artisan breads there in the wood-fired oven. Like recognizing a potter’s work, you will look at the bread and say, that’s Erin’s bread.”
Olson sees artisan bread as part of consumers’ growing interest in knowing exactly who makes the food they eat. Most of the inquiries she receives are about gluten-free products and allergens.
“I just spoke to someone with an MSG allergy,” she says. “She had no idea that hydrolyzed soy protein was the same thing. Let’s spell it out clearly.”
Equally important is food safety. Referring to a past E. coli outbreak in the area, she notes, “It was traced back and was a grower-based illness, but as a restaurateur, you’re stuck with the bad stamp on your forehead. We don’t need to be fearful, but we do need to stay proactive.”
So what keeps Anna Olson going when days are stressful? Remembering why she started in the first place.
“It’s about finding that balance between being the businessperson managing cost control and portioning and consistency and quality, and making what we’re actually making. My husband reminds me, ‘You did this because it was your dream.’ It’s humbling.” / BJ
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Clíona M. Reeves, MA, is a freelance writer based in southern Ontario, and has worked in communications in the food industry for the past 18 years.
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