Local Lentils

rashleigh combine lentils

courtesy of the Peninsula News Review

Until recently, I had never cooked with lentils.  I’d eaten them a few times – travelling in Europe, at a local restaurant that specializes in Moroccan style food, in a casserole at a pot luck dinner once.  I associated them with Middle Eastern cooking, vegetarian food, and “healthy” diets.  I most certainly did not think of them as an option for a locavore in southern BC, nor for an enthusiastically omnivorous family.

So when a local farmer who I’ve known since high school put a sign on his road frontage advertising “Lentils – $2/lb”, I was taken aback, to say the least.  And not just for all the aforementioned reasons, but because Bryce, who I’ve known since high school, grew up on a conventional beef/dairy farm, large by local standards, and when he eventually took it over, phased out the dairy operation, bought a bunch of John Deeres and associated gadgets and got busy building a busy tractor service – hay, cultivating, brush cutting, whatever.  He was to my mind a classic meat eating big ag kind of guy.

There were clues that I might be type casting him too narrowly; the family farm, which he’d co-inherited with his siblings, had to be sold to pay out the non-farming ones, and he bought a 5 acre parcel with a nice house and a stunning view – but which was, after his 170 acre place, pretty small for a meat eating big ag kind of guy.  It didn’t take long for him to build a tractor servicing shed (green), and the big field that comprised most of his property seemed to function mainly as a tractor display case in the beginning.  But pretty soon a few A frame structures appeared, with electric netting around him, and it became obvious that he’d branched into pastured turkeys.  And then his son, away at ag college in Alberta, came home with a friend, excited about a combine harvester he thought the farm should buy.

Now, you have to understand that here on the Island, we have a tiny resurgence of grain growing going on, but I mean tiny.  Not the kind of producton level that I would have thought needs a Prairies sized piece of equipment.  But tractor equipment being for Bryce what motor cars were for Toad (Wind in the Willows), it didn’t take much to convince him to head back to Alberta with his son and friend to visit the friend’s family operation.  He was hooked.  He and Pete helped with the harvest there to learn how to operate the combine, and then they brought it home – an odyssey in itself as it barely conforms to the maximum width that can go on the road – the tunnels and passes through the Rockies were something else, I’m told.  They also packed some lentil seed inside the machine, safe from the snow and weather – a crop the Alberta family had convinced Bryce to try.

Bryce worked up his pasture and sowed some seed, which grew easily, and harvested it with his new combine. As part of the learning curve he had to invest in a cleaning and grading machine, but by then he was convinced this was a crop that could do well here, if he could develop a market for it.  He’s pretty business savvy, so it didn’t surprise me to know that he’d already lined up a few restaurants for regular orders, and that this roadside sign of his was just a way of making some gravy off the surplus.

It was hubby’s birthday a few weeks ago, and his main gift was a cookbook “Mediterranean Slow Cooker”.  As I was driving past Bryce’s small farm one day it occurred to me that the perfect add-on gift would be a pound of lentils, so I stopped in.  Bryce and his crew were on coffee break, so I joined the crowd in the tiny office and they all told me about how great lentils were and how easy they were to cook with, and how much they enjoyed them – apparently Bryce’s wife even put them in lasagne – though Bryce did allow that lentils once or twice a week was about his limit.  Bryce is passionate about local food.  He’s Island born and bred and he believes the Island should be far more self sustaining in terms of food than it currently is.  He is knowledgeable about virtually all aspects of food production here – and having been one himself, he’s not about to cast stones at how the conventional farmers do things, but rather focusses on the need for innovation, diversity, thinking outside the box.  From this guy who I had cast as big ag, I heard the words “I haven’t begun to tap the possibilities on my tiny five acres”.  He’s doing pastured eggs, pastured turkey, lentils,  and u-pick raspberries right now.  Through his custom combine work for a couple of people growing wheat and barley, he’s also selling straw, which believe it or not has been a rare commodity here – two years ago, it was selling at the feed store for $20/bale.  Bryce is making a nice profit this year on $5/bale, because unlike the feed store, he hasn’t shipped it in from Alberta.  I mentioned Joel Salatin and his stacking principles, and learned that Bryce is a huge fan and would have been at the same workshop as me last June but was ill.

Lentils were one of the first crops cultivated by humans.  They come in a variety of colours (Bryce grows red lentils), but are all similar.  According to Wikipedia, they are high in protein, and are used world wide for that reason.  If sprouted, they also provide all the essential amino acids. They are high in fibre, folate and vitamin B1.  All of which explains why I associated them with vegetarianism and healthy diets.  This made them sound like they would taste like Popeye’s spinach, but I was committed to buying them – if only because Bryce had mentioned that he’d sprouted some and fed them to his turkeys, who loved them.  I figured if we hated them, we could do the same and give them to our chickens.

There are lots of red lentil recipes on the web, you can google for one that meets your tastes.  We tried the Red Lentil Soup recipe from the new cookbook , which included tomatoes and a sweet potato and it was delicious, though we overcooked it slightly and it was more like porridge in consistency, which I have since learned is something red lentils in particular are prone to doing.  I do urge you to give them a try, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  And if you need any further recommendation, our teen girls, one of them pretty picky, both gave the porridgey soup we made a firm thumbs up. As Bryce himself is fond of saying – “it doesn’t get better than that”.

Was this post about lentils or my lentil growing farmer?  Well, that’s the thing about buying local.  You’re getting both a product and a relationship.  There are stories and faces behind all the food we eat, no matter where it comes from.  Buying that small bag of lentils from Bryce was a 20 minute stop.  I could have whipped in and out, but that’s not getting to know your food.  I’m not saying it takes that long to buy local food every time, but if this is a first visit or a new product, make sure you’re not rushing the process.  (of course, that can work two ways – if the farmer is hopping from foot to foot waiting for you to pay and go, so she can get back to weeding or something, take the hint).  In the case of my lentil purchase, I really felt I got my money’s worth, out of the conversation alone.  If you’d like to see the face behind my lentils, check out the videos on the Saanichton Farm website.