Once upon a time, sourcing high-quality local products for our kitchen tables was an uphill battle, and few beyond a handful of committed, well-informed individuals bothered. Today, thanks to rigorous social advocates, passionate, hardworking producers and increasing demand from consumers, access to fresh, homegrown ingredients is becoming a given.
But for all our CSAs, farmer’s markets and pastured meats, there’s still one often-overlooked food group that hasn’t garnered quite the same concern: grains. Maybe it’s an assumption that because they’re a dried — rather than fresh — good, their quality is a given. Perhaps it’s a lack of accessibility. Or maybe it’s just that there’s no easy way to track grains or ensure their quality.
That’s where Shira McDermott and Janna Bishop come in. The two Vancouver hotshots have pooled their knowledge and resources to bring Canadian grains to light… and into the hands of locals. The pair talk to us about their new company, Grain, an east Vancouver mill and the best risotto in town.
What inspired you to create Grain? Shira: Janna’s dad, Bob Wallace, was and still is our inspiration for Grain. He is a third generation farmer, who, like all farmers, works hard to grow high quality dry goods. Since these Canadian products are the very best in the world, there’s strong demand for them around the world. This means most of the products produced here in Canada are loaded on trains and ships to be exported. There’s nothing wrong with that. We think it’s fantastic that, for example, number one grade Canada Red Spring Wheat is a highly sought after crop known around the world for its milling qualities and that Kabuli chickpeas grown in southwest Saskatchewan are used in curries in India and hummus in the mediterranean. The unfortunate part is that in Canada we actually import a lot of the very same products we are so well-known for internationally.
Our ultimate goal is to increase the demand for our home-grown Canadian product by raising the profile of Canadian farmers and the food they produce and showing how we are all better off for supporting local food.
Tell us about yourselves. What are your backgrounds? Janna: I grew up on the prairies and moved to Vancouver to attend design school. I am a clothing designer by trade. I really have no professional background in any aspect of the food industry but I have always loved cooking and eating, and certainly appreciate high quality ingredients.
Shira: I grew up on the West Coast and always wanted to travel to the prairies to experience the magic I’d heard so much about. My entire career has been focused on food, whether in a retail, wholesale or food service setting.
How did Grain develop from concept to reality? Janna: Shira was really the catalyst. I had the general idea and some connections to farmers on the prairies, but Shira was the one that was able to confirm there was a market for high quality, farmer-direct dry goods. Her experience in the food and grocery industry was really what got us off the ground.
So what sets Grain’s products apart from the competition? Janna: We are the only brand of dry goods in the market today that provides information on where the product was grown, who farmed it and when it was harvested. And we aren't just providing information—really, we’re celebrating the incredibly hard working families that have, in many cases, been growing food for generations.
Why should people care about where their grains and legumes come from? Shira: Our early market research showed clearly to us that the vast majority of Canadians prefer to support local companies. When it comes to grains and legumes however, the infrastructure to distribute these on a smaller scale just hasn’t been there. As a result, buying grains and legumes in traditional retail settings has become a very impersonal process — and it’s been this way for so long, most of us have never given it a second thought.
Our own personal experience showed us that a major divide existed between end consumers and the farmers who grow these staple products. Consumers haven’t been given the opportunity to care about where their grains and legumes came from, until now. We believe that people should care about these products for the same reasons that they care about their dairy, meat and produce. Supporting family farms is one big reason, since it's becoming increasingly difficult for families to compete with the corporate farms that are buying up the Canadian prairies. Transparency is another, as it takes the farm-to-table concept to the next level if you can bake a loaf of bread with wheat flour grown, transported, and milled by people you know. Finally, quality is the last piece in the puzzle. Our Canadian product is the best in the world — why not make it available to Canadians and people in North America instead of shipping it in containers overseas and importing inferior products from abroad?
Why do you think the market is ready for Grain right now? Shira: I think this is a natural progression for the industry as a whole. It seems almost every other aspect of the food landscape has been celebrated in this way: In Vancouver we know so much about our berries, our tree fruits, our potatoes, cheese, eggs, beef, pork and wine. You name it. But not dry goods. We want to provide this same level of transparency. To honestly say we know where all of our food comes from—not just certain ingredients—is exciting. Farming is such a historic part of our identity as a country; we want more people to know about this stuff.
So, where do your products come from? Janna: Our products are sourced primarily from family farms in Saskatchewan and Alberta. We are constantly looking for new items that meet our requirements both in quality and transparency. The strength of our connections to the prairies—and our desire to provide that same connection for our customers—has really driven our sourcing so far. That, and the fact that our own province (BC) simply doesn’t have the topography for growing many of these grains. Nonetheless, this is something we are excited to start exploring. There are pockets of BC growing small quantities of some of our favourite dry goods and we hope to build relationships in those areas in the coming months
How easy or hard was it to set up a mill in Vancouver? Janna: The easiest—and most fun— part has been the research. Last year we travelled to Austria to visit the 100-year-old family business that makes nothing but stone flour mills. This was an important part of our decision-making process, and we chose this particular mill for a number of reasons. Once it arrived here however, things became a little more complicated, as there has been no precedent set within Vancouver for operating this type of machine. We’ve spent this year building our brand and working closely with our customers on our unprocessed product, all while solving the puzzle of zoning and bylaws. It’s been a great learning process, but we are ready move to the next phase.
What happens at the mill? Janna: Flour milling is a critical component of the Grain business plan. But, alas, importing a stone mill from Austria and starting—as far as we can tell—the first new flour mill in the city of Vancouver in decades has proven difficult. But we’ve recently signed a lease for a new space in the Bridge District of south Vancouver and hope to be up and running by the end of the year. Once we start producing flour, our mission is to provide fresh flour, milled to order, for bakeries, restaurants and consumers. We’re especially excited to bring full transparency to the flour scene.
In the new year we will be offering an assortment of freshly ground, whole grain flours, starting with Red Spring Wheat, Farro, Spelt and Red Fife. Where can folks get their hands on your products?
Janna: We don’t have a retail space at our new warehouse, but our products are available in select retail stores throughout BC, as well as online at eatgrain.ca. Long term, our goal is to grow into a space where people can visit the mill, learn about Canadian farming and dry goods and purchase our products.
We currently have four items available for the public: Laird Lentils, Golden Quinoa, Kabuli Chickpeas and Wheat Berries. These are all unprocessed, premium products from our farmers.
Once our mill is running, we have plans to make our fresh flour available to the public, we are just fleshing out exactly what that will look like — as the current grocery store on-the-shelf model won’t easily support our goal where ultimate freshness is concerned.
Do you have any plans to add more products to your line up? Janna: All the time! We will be adding French Lentils and Farro to our retail line this winter.
Your favourite grain or legume? Janna: Oh so tough! I think I have to say chickpeas. They are definitely the one I use the most in my own cooking. They are just so versatile: dips, salads, soup, curry, pasta. Anything! My second favourite is wheat berries. They add so much to salads!
Shira: I’m with Janna, that is a tough question! I might have to say chickpeas too, since they are a crowd favourite and everyone in my family loves them. I also love to rotate through all the different whole grains to add to my salads too. If I had to pick my all time favourite though, I’d have to say fresh sourdough bread made with freshly milled flour — I’m also a bit of a butter enthusiast.
Grain’s products can be enjoyed either right at home or at one of Vancouver’s finest dining establishments. Find them here!
For a taste of how the professionals gussied up their grains, we headed to Gastown’s Birds and the Beets for a Charred Veggie Sandwich with Curried Lentil Pate and Sprouted Grain Salad. And for the adventurous home cook, Janna & Shira have generously shared one of their favourite Wheat Berry risotto recipes.
Bob’s Wheat Berry Risotto with Mushrooms Serves 6 as a side, Adapted from NY Times food
Ingredients ½ ounce (1/2 cup, approximately) dried porcini mushrooms 1 litre chicken stock or vegetable stock 1 ½ cups Bob’s Wheat Berries 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 cup finely chopped onion 1 pound brown or white mushrooms cleaned, trimmed and sliced 1 tsp salt 2 large garlic cloves, minced 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary ½ cup dry white wine Freshly ground pepper to taste 1 to 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1/4 to 1/2 cup) ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
- Place the Wheat Berries in a bowl, and pour on enough hot water to cover by an inch. Let soak while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Drain. *For faster cooking soak the Wheat Berries in water for up to 24 hours in advance of cooking the dish.
- Place the dried mushrooms in a large Pyrex measuring cup or bowl, and pour in 2 cups boiling water. Let sit 30 minutes.
- Drain the mushrooms through a strainer set over a bowl and lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the mushrooms over the strainer, then rinse in several changes of water to remove grit. Chop coarsely and set aside. Add the broth from the mushrooms to the stock. You should have 6 cups of liquid. Place the liquid in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Add the salt.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet. Add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about three minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add a pinch of salt, the garlic and rosemary. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are tender, about five minutes – for extra richness, add a tablespoon of butter to the pan while the mushrooms cook.
- Add the Wheat Berries and reconstituted dried mushrooms and stir. Stir in the wine and cook, stirring until the wine has been absorbed. Add all but about 1 cup of the stock, and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 60-70 minutes or until the Wheat Berries are tender; some of the grains will be beginning to become round and plump.
- Remove the lid, and stir vigorously from time to time. Stir in the remaining cup of stock and continue to simmer until thick, like a sauce. If not serving right away, cover and let stand. Just before serving, bring back to a simmer, add the Parmesan, parsley and pepper (saving some for garnish), and stir together. Remove from the heat and serve.