It’s 4pm in London and 8am Vancouver-time when I enter a Zoom meeting room with Janna Bishop and Shira McDermott. I had briefly felt guilty about asking them to speak so early in their day, then remember that they run bakeries, and that if anyone’s going to be up with the sparrows, it’s them. Loaves are early risers.
Even if there are two screens and 5,000 miles between us, there’s an apt kind of intimacy to speaking to the pair in this way. Together, they have set out to put a face (or faces) to the monolith that is Canadian grain production, championing the people who grow and mill it. So, to be able to see their faces like this – head-on, up-close – is fitting.
Janna and Shira run Flourist, a Vancouver-based flour mill and purveyor of dry goods with two locations. But theirs is a business with a mission much greater than the sum of these parts. “Canada feeds the world,” says Janna (it is one of the leading exporters of durum wheat worldwide), adding, “we supply these products to other countries known for their food cultures.” The majority of the wheat used in Italian food production is Canadian, for example – much of the pasta eaten all over the world “literally begins its life here in the Canadian prairies.”
With Flourist, Janna and Shira have brought 100 per cent traceable grains – always from family farms and grown in Canada, almost always organic – to market, and use the guiding principle: “Traceable food is trustworthy food. Clarity begets health.” They are a medium for connecting small, artisanal farms with people who care about what they eat – not just how it tastes, but its provenance, too.
This is a concept with which both of Flourist’s founders were familiar long before conversations about artisanal food became fashionable. “As kids, we both always had freshly-baked bread – yeasted, but never sourdough,” says Shira, who grew up with the kind of diet that nowadays might sound aspirational – food made and often grown from scratch, much of it pulse-based and unselfconsciously vegan. In her words, though, it was an upbringing of “almost poverty” but also “abundant – we ate so well, with very little”; in her mind, thrift and generosity are absolutely not mutually exclusive, and this is essential to the founding principles of Flourist. Shira grew up on the Gulf Islands, an archipelago to the west of Vancouver, where her parents – “Seventies hippies” – created a homestead. “I always had a base knowledge of how to live simply. We were (and still are) vegetarian, and ate mostly staples, homegrown vegetables, dry goods, wholewheat breads, very little was refined or processed,” she says.
"The menus in Flourist’s bakeries are nostalgic, say Janna and Shira, with re-workings of many of the favourite items they grew up with. Janna remembers “ridiculously sweet, sandwiched jam-jam cookies” made by her grandmother (“prairie grandmas are known for always having cookies”), and Shira's grandmother's recipe for a similar cookie have been reinterpreted into Flourist’s Hazelnut Jam cookies, full of roughly chopped nuts and a dollop of raspberry jam. “It’s a feeling rather than an item,” emphasises Shira, “classic, comforting, approachable things,” like their potato and cheddar galette, which reminds her of a snack she had in elementary school. “Anything with lentils gives me fond memories of growing up,” she adds, “gram for gram, they are unbelievably nutritious and economical.” She seldom has a day without them.
Janna grew up in Calgary, in Alberta, western Canada. Though hers was an urban upbringing, everyone in her family had before her been raised in Saskatchewan, mostly on farms. When she graduated college and moved west to Vancouver, her mother did the opposite, relocating further east to join the seventh generation family farm with her stepfather (one of Flourist’s original suppliers of grains and pulses). By this point, Janna had become a clothing designer; while this had no obvious link to her farming roots, her family background and chosen career germinated the kernel of an idea for what was to become Flourist. Not only was Janna aware of all the highly productive Canadian farms that went mostly unrecognised for their contribution to global food security, but she could see that – like with coffee, or indeed fashion – people were starting to care more about where their food came from. “I felt there was an opportunity. But I only knew design, the prairies, apparel… I had no connections in the food world. Then I met Shira.”
Shira, meanwhile, was already working in the food space in Vancouver – at this point, in coffee. This was, she says, “very formative, because the industry was going through a period of change, and conversations were being had about things that we now take for granted, like small batch roasting and drinking single varietal coffees (rather than blends).” When Janna shared her idea, McDermott loved it; when I hear this, I ask why, of all products, grains felt like the intuitive starting point? “They are a cornerstone of our kitchens,” says Janna. Think bread, pasta, pastry – they offer the chance to turn wishful thinking about a broken food system into a plausible reality. Grains offer the opportunity for impact. If all bread were to be made with freshly-milled, traceable flour, for example, there’d be a high chance of many people coming into contact with it, trying it, tasting the difference.
Starting with flour, however, wasn’t simple due to Vancouver city’s rules about milling, which is considered to be overly dusty and hazardous (which indicates something of the scale at which milling usually happens there). “There was no precedent for what we were doing,” Janna tells me, “the city had never seen a small, wooden stone mill from Austria, they had no way of calculating the risk (which is none!)”. So, before flour, Janna and Shira started to sell dry goods – chickpeas, wholegrain farro, wheat berries, quinoa, French lentils and Laird (green) lentils. “We looked for farmers who could grow to our specifications, were prepared to be transparent about their processes and who would sell us small quantities, which is not how Canadian farms are conventionally set up,” says Janna.
The market for traceable, high quality Canadian flour and dry goods wasn’t quite what the pair had anticipated: “We thought we’d be milling for bakeries and restaurants, but it turned out they weren’t as interested as direct consumers. Freshly milled flour is dynamic, it varies from crop to crop, and you have to be prepared to let the flour drive your method. Few restaurants were willing to take that on,” Janna tells me. On the flip side, feedback from home bakers and families was quickly glowing, although they craved guidance in how to use it, and to try things made with it by experts. The Flourist brick and mortar concept grew from there, converting people to freshly-milled flour, with their delicious bread, pastries, grainy salads, as well as bread and pasta making classes.
Today, Janna and Shira speak to me from their Commercial Street bakery, which they describe as a “wheat field-inspired, golden, buttery soft, sort of Scandi, sort of Shaker-style” space – yes, the kind of design you want to devour. It is a beautiful space, but also a neutral one, a high contrast backdrop to the food they serve and sell. I can only imagine the food at this distance – torture! – but behind the pair hang sacks of Laird lentils, spelt flour, a proofng basket, a Danish dough whisk.
They tell me about Canadian Thanksgiving, which happens earlier than in the States, a harvest festival and a “bread heavy meal” says Shira: “typically, it’s turkey, a stuffing made from bread cubes and mirepoix, mashed potatoes, gravy, yams or squash, a tart cranberry sauce, everything that’s abundant at this time of year.” And for dessert? That would be pumpkin pie. “Winter squash with a custard of cream, eggs, sugar – it’s dang delicious,” she says, before telling me about Flourist’s pumpkin cake with brown butter icing. “It’s an outrageous bake,” says Janna, and when I see both women’s eyes light up over the screen, I know I need to try it. Luckily they gave me, and now you, the recipe. Naturally, you’ll want to get hold of the best quality, most freshly-milled flour you can for this.
Recipe for Spiced Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
1 can (425g) pumpkin puree
114g neutral oil or melted butter
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Brown Butter Frosting
260g icing sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2.5 tbsp milk
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line the bottom of a 9" cake pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl whisk together the pumpkin puree, neutral oil or butter, eggs and sugar until smooth. Add baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices and stir until combined. Add Flourist Sifted Spelt Flour and gently fold batter together with a spatula until it's almost all mixed together. Do not over mix. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and smooth out the top.
Bake the cake for about 40-50 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean and the top has set. Let cool for 10 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting.
For the frosting, brown the butter, then remove it from the heat and let it cool for 3-5 minutes before adding the icing sugar (sifted). Then add the milk and vanilla and stir well.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Ian Lanterman.
For more information, visit Flourist.