Red Fife – an “Heritage Grain” was North America’s preferred bread wheat in the 19th century, fathering many of our modern bread wheat varieties. It disappeared from production with the Great Depression and was re-introduced into Canada a little over decade ago, where it has drawn a slow, stedy, ardent cadre of artisan bakers.
A Little History
Red Fife is believed to have crossed several continents and the Atlantic before arriving in Canada, where it gained a foothold on the land of David Fife, hence its name. Red Fife is the first wheat to be named in Canada and has great agricultural influence there today, as many modern varieties of wheat are genetically related to this grain.
Red Fife wheat is thought to have originated in Turkey, after which it moved across the Black Sea to Ukraine where Mennonite farmers grew it. Red Fife seeds were later shipped to Glasgow, where a friend of David Fife sent a sample to Canada. Fife then grew the variety in Ontario and shared it with other farmers, calling the wheat Red Fife after its distinctive color. The Red Fife seed adapted to a great diversity of growing conditions across Canada and became the baking and milling industry standard for forty years, from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century.
For most of the twentieth century, Red Fife was grown in very small quantities in plant breeders’ seed collections. Interest in growing heritage wheat grew slowly in Canada and subsequently in the U.S.
Red Fife wheat has only three small awns at the top of the head. The straws can grow up to a height of 3–5 feet, depending on the nutrients available in the soil. Red Fife wheat is red or white in color. On Canada's west coast, Red Fife wheat is whiter in color, due to genetic interaction with mild environmental conditions. Red Fife grows as a spring wheat on the Prairies and can be grown both as a spring and winter wheat on the temperate west and east coasts and in Ontario.
But let's talk about flavor - some say that Red Fife has hints of spices in its taste, a little cinnamon. I don't know, I will let you be the judge of that - tell me what you think when you've tried it.
This Saturday's Bake
I will bake white sourdough using organic white Red Fife, sourced from a family run mill in rural Minnesota.
Your Canadian Baker