A Blackbird and a Red Fife

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You might want to wake up early for a piece of bread. Specially for a piece of bread from Blackbird Baking Co. In the heart of the highly touristic Kensington Market, I couldn’t expect this little gem. The brick-walls black-facade shop popped up in 2014 (Blackbird was founded in 2010 but only for wholesale), merci to Simon Blackwell, the owner.

Canadian real breads’ scene is emerging carefully, saying goodbye step by step to fluffy loose american crumb, to white unflavored pain de mie, to inconsistant and sugared loaf, and to addition of chemical yeast into GMO flour. Au revoir and welcome back to the authentic way of milling and baking. Blackbird is now ahead for a long time, flying against the bad wind of overproduction, refreshing its sourdough conscientiously everyday. Perfect loafs and baguettes traditionelles only occur from a slow-rising levain, which means patience.

A family destiny? Not really. Even though his parents ran a bakery in BC for over 40 years, Simon didn’t want to be a baker but a chef. Bread came afterwards. Autodidact, he read and learned on the web baking methods and, like many of our generation, he decided to unlearn and get back to the source. Because ancestral recipes only require flour, water and salt, a bit of heat and a lot of heart. 

Blackbird bread is both rich and airy, with a golden crispy crust, due to a high hydratation — hydratation percentage affects the process of building the loaf: the more you hydrate, the more your bread is well-blowy. I love the hint of sour from the levain, the texture in my mouth, the sensation on my tongue, reminding me childhood, unsalted butter and very sweet strawberry jam on a big slice of whole wheat bread: oh oui, this is definitely my Proust’s madeleine.

From my researches, Blackbird uses quality ancestral-made flours of Mark Hayhoe K2 Milling (Beeton, ON) and Hoffnung Farms, an Amish and Mennonite flour mill in Howick Township (Gorrie, ON). All of the formulas are blends of flours in various percentages with pastry flour or unbleached flour. Spelt, rye, whole wheat, malted barley… Blackbird is also famous by reintroducing Red Fife wheat. This heritage grain back in the days from Ukraine, first grown in Canada in 1843, was known to be low resistance of frost damage and has been encroached by combination with other grain developing Marquis, Early Red Fife and Thatcher modern wheats in the 1900’s.

  • Red Fife, 1885, seed sent to Mr. David Fife in Peterborough, taken from a ship in the Glasgow port originating from Danzig. A friend of his sent him seed from Glasgow in 1842. Good yielder, high quality; excellent milling and baking wheat. (Fed Canada from 1860-1900).
  • Marquis, 1910, Red Fife x Hard Red Calcutta, developed by Agriculture Canada, Ottawa. William Saunders made the cross at Agassiz in 1892. Dr. Charles Saunders selected at Ottawa, using chewing test for quality.
  • Early Red Fife, 1932. Marquis x Kanred. University of Alberta. 3 days earlier than Red Fife.
  • Thatcher, 1935. Marquillo x (marquis x Kanred) Marquillo=Marquis x lumillo (Durum). University of Manitoba. First of series of rust resistant varieties. Widely adapted, good quality. 70% of Canadian wheat acreage in 1953.
    — source: Grassroot Solutions

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Marquis (fig.10) and Thatcher (fig.6) look strong and tenacious, Early Red Fife (fig.7) more elegant and tight, whereas the original Red Fife (fig.2) has small ill-assorted grains — but who cares? — and because of this weakness, Red Fife disappeared from Canadian farm fields for quite a while: 80 years. Its rebirth and recognition began with half a pound of Red Fife seeds planted by the wonderful Sharon Rempel apace with seven other historic wheat varieties in BC. We are in 1988, in other words, people just thought she was turning crazy. But falsehood is cowardice and trust is courage. Wait 2007 and it’s a million pounds of Red Fife wheat that has been harvested in Canada. In 2003, Red Fife is nominated to the Ark of Taste organized by Slow Food Foundation, appearing to be the first heritage wheat put on the list.

In France, we have a quote saying “When the blackbird whistles, winter is over”, I guess Blackbird’s breads sing and spread an endless summer on the Red Fife fields of Canada.

Blackbird Baking Co., 172 Baldwin St, Toronto, ON M5T 1L8

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