There is no question that gluten-free food is here to stay in restaurants, on store shelves, and in-home kitchens around the country.
In the not-so-distant past, gluten probably wouldn’t have even been in your vocabulary, but now almost one in three Canadians are buying gluten-free because of intolerances, health, or for family and friends. Luckily, we have more options than ever in Alberta for bakeries focusing on their needs.
As president and owner of Calgary’s Care Bakery (carebakery.com), Kerry Bennett has been thinking about gluten for a long time. “It was 2007 when I started cooking school… right after I had discovered that I couldn’t eat gluten. I filled a suitcase with all sorts of obscure flours that I would wheel in along with my knives. I would stay late and experiment, and try things out with my baking instructor. We were finding great success, so I applied for a research grant after I graduated, and it was the first culinary research grant that SAIT awarded.”
For many gluten-free bakers, the process is one of creating a niche, and learning on the job. “The day we opened was my first day working in a bakery, and I owned the place,” Bennett laughs. “We worked a long time to bring down the number of ingredients, and to keep it to pronounceable ingredients. It can be tricky, but I think it’s a healthier way to eat,” she says. As for home chefs, Bennett has some tips too. “You can create your own flour blends, but there are great ones available, so you can dive in pretty easily. We always ate dinner as a family, and I wanted to make sure no one felt left out – I like to share food.”
For Stephen and Ruth Fletcher-Beck, co-founders of Mountain Rhino Gluten-Free Artisan Foods in Calgary (mountainrhinodonuts.com), getting into gluten-free was a complete accident. “My husband wanted to be a weekend warrior selling yeast doughnuts at markets,” says Ruth. “When that took off and we were making doughnuts full time, there were more and more people at markets asking for gluten-free, so we started trying out recipes. We didn’t know what we shouldn’t be able to do, so we did it!”
“We have a lot of celiacs that are thrilled to eat the foods they remember and have them taste the way they remember,” she shares. Presently, the only treatment for those with celiac disease is a gluten-free diet, so bakeries like Mountain Rhino are extremely important to them, and the Fletcher-Becks understand why: “After being told that there is something you can’t have for so long, it’s amazing being told that there is something delicious for you.”
It was understanding this frustration that first brought Lee-Anne Neufeld to starting Edmonton’s Celebrate Gluten-Free (celebrateglutenfree.com). “When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1992 there were very few options to buy gluten-free and what there was, did not have much taste and texture. I did like to bake before but this was a whole new challenge, even access to gluten-free flours was difficult. I ate a lot of rice cakes!”
Neufeld is happy to see more and more bakeries and home bakers dabbling and trying it for themselves now. “Gluten-free baking definitely has its challenges,” she cautions. “Recipes that contain yeast require patience and persistence. You may have intended to make a loaf of bread, but it might become breadcrumbs for your next batch of meatloaf.”
As if the challenges of baking gluten-free are not enough, Edmonton’s Food In the NūD (foodinthenud.ca) has the additional challenge of being a whole food bakery, which means they don’t use any refined sugars, flours or oils. “I started this because my son and I had food intolerances,” says owner and food alchemist, Chrysta Morkeberg. “Even though I am eating gluten-free doesn’t mean it was healthy, so I started researching into different flours and sweeteners.”
Having been on both ends of dietary restrictions, Morkeberg knows how powerful it can be to find a bakery that works for you. “I have had people cry, I have had naturopaths work with us, and I find it really rewarding, You come in and we get into discussions about health issues, it’s like walking into a friend’s kitchen.”
Proving that no two stories are quite alike, Najah Shtay is the owner of Rio Vida Gluten-Free Bakery in Edmontron (riovidaglutenfree.ca) and brings her passion from her home country. “I was born in Brazil, so I thought about bringing some of my culture to my baking,” she says. Like many gluten-free bakers, her story started with her own health concerns, and she adds: “Never give up learning your food, it’s so important that celiac or gluten sensitive individuals should always incorporate legumes, fruits and vegetables, fibre and protein.”
Shtay is happy to see the quality of alternatives, and bakeries like hers bringing passion to this niche. “Everything here is made from scratch, and we love using local ingredients since Alberta and Saskatchewan have such great products right in our backyard.”
Whether you need to cut out gluten entirely, or be more inclusive for friends with dietary restrictions, it’s now easier than ever to find quality gluten-free baking. Although all these bakers were eager to have home chefs experiment for themselves, for now we’ll let these experts do the hard work while we enjoy a cinnamon bun.