By Naomi Szeben
Back to the basics with ancient grains
By Naomi Szeben
Baking with whole grains isn’t a new trend, but True Grain Bakery is putting a modern spin on ancient grain. Summerland business owner Todd Laidlaw says his clients are as equally interested in luxurious treats as they are about reduced sugar, gut health and environmentally sustainable grains.
The bakery is located in the Okanagan Valley, and Laidlaw uses wine country analogies to describe the range of flavours and mouth feel each grain brings to their brownies and cookies, as a sommelier would describe vintages. The original owners, Bruce and Leslie Stewart are the original founders of the three-store bakery chain, with Laidlaw picking up the reins when Bruce took up farming in New Hazelton. Laidlaw’s business background was just what the whole-grain bakery needed to hit the ground running.
“We were really impressed with what we saw; this little organic and handcrafted bakery, which at the time had just the one location in Cowichan Bay, British Columbia, right out by the ocean. It was charming, had lots of character and we could feel the warmth when we walked in to that little bakery. We knew that we had found something that our business school backgrounds could help grow.”
The bakery grew into three chains from the original Cowichan Bay location, to another in Summerland in 2012 and Courtenay in 2017. “It was never about growing it into a Starbucks. It’s not really about the number of locations; it’s more about how the values of our business are kept alive with fresh, local, organic handcrafted product.”
The choice to keep the grains sourced locally started in either 2016 or 2017, according to Laidlaw. The bakery was previously bringing in Canadian grains from the Prairies. Becoming aware of the bakeries’ carbon footprint, True Grain’s owners decided to find farmers within B.C. They selected organic white flour from the Okanagan, along with their einkorn, Khorasan, rye, spelt and heritage sweet red fife heritage wheat flour.
“So we really reduced our overall carbon footprint as a business. But it’s more than that. It’s building that sustainable food system. You know, think of all the farming jobs, all the cleaning, milling, baking and transportation jobs involved. We’re really building an infrastructure and creating a vibrancy in our local communities through the creation of these jobs. So we’re really pleased about that. That’s a big success of the last five years,” states Laidlaw.
Part of that success lies with getting back to the basics of what customers want and love. The locals respect and love the idea of supporting local business and farmers, to say nothing of the reward of getting a sweet treat from the bakery through their patronage. The question then remains as to how to get clients hooked on a different kind of grain, instead of making chocolate chip cookies from the well known AP flour?
In response, Laidlaw holds up their legendary chocolate roasted almond cookie. “The customers feel this connection because everything’s done within a tight circle. We like to say we’re connecting the farmer with the miller with the baker, and then back out to the community.”
To make customers’ selection easier, the bakery colour-codes their products with labels that correspond to a specific grain. Spelt products have blue tags, Red Fife has a red tag, oats a brown tag, cream coloured labels contain rye products and orange tags belong to einkorn baked goods.
“If someone learns that they can digest spelt without any issue, then they know that they can then purchase ours. We offer handcrafted pasta online so they could purchase spelt pasta, spelt cookies, spelt flour, spelt bread, and the same color coding continues throughout the store.”
The variety of flour brings a range of flavours that most bakeries might not experience with a single type of available material. “For the longest time it’s been white bread and brown bread. It’s boring if all you could buy is white wine and red wine. You want to buy a Cabernet Sauvignon; you want to buy a Merlot…you want to buy varietals, and that’s what True Grain does. They all taste different. They all look different. They’re all on display in the store so people can actually see the ears of the grain. We end up educating our clients all about grain.”
Laidlaw laughs about how he could ‘talk about cookies for days.’ “We sell a lot of cookies. We sell them in cookie packs. And they’re not cheap: They’re adult indulgences. They fly right out of the store.” The shop’s most popular choice is the Fresh Ginger cookie, made of heritage wheat.
“It’s just a delicious, delicious cookie,” says Laidlaw. “The benefit is for people that want to or maybe have a hard time digesting the modern wheat. They have an alternative, but with a grain that hasn’t been hybridized.” Laidlaw also features cookies for a wide range of activities as well as dietary concerns. The Carrot, Raisin and Pumpkin Seed Cookie, made with Emmer flour, is popular for cookie fans with an active lifestyle.
“I call it my ‘hiking and mountain biking’ cookie. But it has the texture of a muffin. It’s very soft. A lot of our demographic really liked this cookie. It’s wholesome. With carrots, raisins, and the pumpkin seeds as ingredients, it’s almost a healthy indulgence, it’s not an explosion of sugar. It’s not a big insulin spike.”
While there are still customers who shop by colour for ease of digestion, there are many indulgent treats that can still be savoured by those with and without dietary restrictions. With True Grain’s interest in ancient grains, bridging the gap between healthy grains and indulgent treats became a mission. The result? The Purist Einkorn Cookie.
“We set out to make a cookie that is wholesome; Not overly sweet, but one that brings out the natural flavour of this wonderful grain.” The company uses organic butter, farm-fresh eggs and what Laidlaw lists as very simple ingredients that really accentuates the natural flavour of Einkorn. “We don’t use a lot of butter and a lot of sugar. We really want the taste experience to be the grain. And it’s a phenomenal flavor. People swear that it has macadamia nuts in it, despite there not being any such nuts. That’s that true taste of the Einkorn grain coming through.” Laidlaw says the Einkorn cookies were a true success story for both the bakery and the farm. “It’s like turning back the clock. These are grains from 1000 years ago and to be able to bake with them today is a real pleasure.”
Laidlaw says that going contrary to popular choices found in any grocery store, artisanal whole grain choices makes consumer better connect with their food and their health. While Laidlaw attributes a lot of his success to educating his customers about the wide array of grains and their origins, he is not against the idea of expanding the bakeries. That said, he doesn’t see them growing outside of British Columbia, where he can link the farmer to the miller and then directly to his bakeries.
“First and foremost, it’s just an amazing taste experience and so unlike any other cookie. It’s very unique. And I think that attracts people. But I think the history behind the grain is equally attracting. In a lot in a lot of ways, craft baking is becoming a lost art in the Americas. Just being aware that this is a grain that first grew in the Fertile Crescent about 1000 years ago, is quite appealing to foodies.”
Laidlaw’s advice for bakers to get customers to try new grain-based products, is to continue experimenting with flavour, textures and a wider array of grains. “Be creative. It’s a craft…I think a number of the most wonderful things we discovered were happy accidental mistakes. You never know when you’re going to stumble across that next thing that customers really come to love. “