The more folks who devoid wheat and gluten-based products that surface on this West Coast, the more wheat prices seem to rise. I have questions, I have stories, I even have first-hand experiences.The truth is that wheat in Canada is a heavily subsidized cash crop. We sell a vast portion of our wheat grain to the America’s in replacement of precious H2O, meanwhile the little creative entrepreneurs like us, running a small-scale handmade everything pie shop graciously swallow then gag on the cost of superior organic Canadian wheat.
After 15 years of baking professionally and almost 29 years of baking in my mama’s kitchen (yes I started young) I have witnessed the rising cost of wheat flour skyrocket to almost unfathomable heights. Our little shop in Vancouver, sifts through thousands of pounds of organic wheat flour a year to make our simple BC celebrated fruit pies. With a little pat of butter and sugar we sell whole and sliced up pies to our favorite city. My talented sister Andrea and I opened up shop in December of 2012, only a few weeks before the Christmas holidays. In that time, we have grown elegantly towards supplying a handmade, locally supported, farmer induced sustainable product.
We wake up in the morning, ride our bikes to the shop and begin our daily routine. Firstly, turning on the ovens and with either flour from Anita’s or Roger’s, two local flour mills that make some of the worlds most flavorful unbleached, no vitamin or mineral enriched, non-chlorinated, organic freshly milled flour. We proceed to hand mix in the sweet butter, and take turns rolling out the dough as the other prepares the fillings, wether that means peeling Okanagan peaches, slicing perfectly tart apples, or picking through little blueberry gems. The pies are made fresh in the a.m. for our friends, neighbour and customer who stroll in through the day for a slice of pie and coffee.
Our menu is simple, our shop is petit, and our philosophy is rich with stories of community. We navigate towards friendly farms just beyond the city landscape for our ingredients. Along the way chatting with like-minded individuals who get a strong sense of what the two sisters are up to in Chinatown. Without the preaching of local and organic, we support the little guys. With rising costs of fuel and scarcity of fresh water, high rent and taxes, we play in our pint-size kitchen with beautifully ripe picked bounty. What kind of farming is this, local, organic, biodynamic? We have learned that it goes beyond labels. The business model dives deeper into the social and agricultural economics of what it means to operate a small venture. I think the customer gets that.
Stepping back, my first experience with the rising cost of flour was when I was working at a little bakery in Ottawa and witnessed organic flour shooting up in price almost 300% over night. This was in the early 2000’s when, sugar was cheep, less folks knew what Wheat Bellies were and smoking was still cool in bars.
The second experience was in ’08 while in University. I worked at a medium scale predominantly bread-focused bakery in Vancouver and witnessed the same pattern overnight. The difference was that in this round it was less personal, I was not working in a company with 5 people, like I was back in Ottawa, I was working in a company, with 100’s of others, in a much larger city. They even had an HR Department, and a sensible solution to the rising cost. The company decided to create loaves of bread at two thirds the weight and raise the retail cost by twenty five percent. This seemed to be a viable solution to a larger problem.
When you live in a really large country, it is difficult to imagine there ever being a shortage of water, clean soil, devastating crop loss, and particularly in this case a shortage of grain. We have basically dedicated 4 very large provinces towards growing wheat for god’s sakes, and almost one whole entire province,Manitoba, strictly to the task.
I have always believed in Entrepreneurialism as a means of creating solutions to securing a stronger future. You are familiar with the saying, “Leave something your proud of, for your Children.” Well the longer I live, the more I become disenchanted with the belief that this will ever be viable in my own foreseeable future. When I was a child, as naive as I may have been, I wanted to ‘Change the World.’ I like many, had no idea what that really meant or how/where to start, but as a small child, I gave it a shot. I played, I made things, I read, I chatted with grown-ups and traveled the world, fell in love with food, art and design.
My home is Canada, it probably always will be. I love this place. British Columbia has boldly written ‘Best Place on Earth’ on our license plates - that must mean something.
After a good friend’s most recent trip to France, and a few laughs, I learned that the bread-makers and patisseries in Paris boast, if not swear by, Manitoba Wheat, they have hilariously turned it into a exclusive brand, one that costs almost 3000% more a kilo there, than here.
I am embracing the idea that chefs are activists whose job is to address the end result, in my case, pie. How can I not care about the beginning? The way we eat, how we think about food, and how food is actually intrinsically connected, is truthfully chaotic. Food is most often misunderstood, undervalued, and thrown away in the trash. The current farm-to-table style business model, I believe, is viable. Now the tricky bit is to take it further by maintaining quality and still support the little guys.
written by Stephanie French
Co-Owner of The Pie Shoppe, Vancouver