18 April 2009

Evelyn's Crackers

OK, it's about time, I know. I have been promising this and other posts for months, but I have been so busy with daily posting on "365 Memories" that I have simply not had the stamina for more. But, when something's good, it's good, and I have a good bit to say about crackers. Listen up, especially if you are planning to visit Toronto, Canada.

A couple of weeks ago, while my son was on spring break, I decided to go with him up to Toronto, to visit a good friend who also happens to be an excellent cook and baker. I've known Dawn Woodward since day one of college, back in 1988, and since then we've each made our own way through the world—she farther afield, to be sure—but we have always stayed close, kindred spirits and devout food-folk. (Side note: Our first joint experiment, when we realized that both of us had family from the South, was to try to make a pot of boiled peanuts in our dorm's efficiency kitchen. We made the mistake of using dried peanuts in the shell—you know, the kind you might buy at the circus; it didn't work, although we boiled the hell out of them for an entire weekend. Turns out, you need to use fresh peanuts!) We cooked and baked together throughout college, but after graduation it was Dawn, not I, who went professional with this shared love of food.

I will say here that it's great to have a good friend who's a world traveler and passionate about local cuisine. Although Dawn is American like me, I feel that through her travels, she has become my most "melting pot" kind of friend, the one who pulls me without fail out of any insular American rut I might fall into. But instead of waiting for the influences of ethnic cultures to come to her, she goes out and tracks them down at the roots. Through her, I have learned about (and tasted) some fabulous food, especially from Southeast Asia, but also from the Republic of Georgia, and other countries bordering the Black Sea, though these are just a smattering of places she has visited.

Although Dawn has quite a repertoire and a résumé of diverse culinary focus, her business now is crackers: Evelyn's Crackers. And up in Toronto, the crackers are gaining traction. I will say up front that I regret posting about a wonderful product (an accurate assessment despite my bias of friendship, I swear) that is not commercially available outside of Toronto. If you want to taste the crackers, you'll have to either go there, or else catch me at a time when I've scored some crackers from across the border and am willing to share them with you. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write about them.

Evelyn's Crackers is a business that "builds local community, one cracker at a time," as declared on the Evelyn's Crackers Web site. From supporting area farmers and suppliers, to embracing native varieties of grains such as Red Fife whole wheat, Evelyn's Crackers is a local, organic, artisan effort. Great for healthy, sustainable, eco-conscious business; kind of bad for non-Torontonians. As I said, it's a border-crossing fix, but now I'm hooked.

The crackers themselves are all handcrafted and have a wonderfully rustic appeal. Simple in shape with their mostly long, thin forms and straight or serrated edges, they are made visually interesting with their earthy tone and richly textured surfaces. The crackers' simple design serves to showcase the fine grains and spices with which they are made. They are wonderful to accompany hard or soft cheeses, and I recently served the last of my cracker supply with a yellow-split-pea purée, which went along with some mini-spanakopita on an Easter hors d'oeuvres tray. The crackers are unusual—not the typical airy, bland, over-processed, over-salted rounds (or squares) we all grew up with. They are at once sophisticated yet unpretentious and unfussy (like Dawn herself!).

As for cracker varieties, there are quite a few. Among my favorites: Barley Extra Virgin (now called Bay Barley Anise, if I remember correctly), which perhaps I like for its aromatic Greek spices; Slightly Seedy, because I love the health kick and meaty crunch of the flax, pumpkin, and sesame seeds; and the Spicy Dal and Coconut Sticks, which definitely have a good heat. My son's favorite is the Salty Oats cracker, which is more buttery than salty, and could almost qualify as a dessert in my book—I can imagine this as a good cracker to serve with a cheese course before a true dessert. Finally, there are the Cheddar Crispies, which are made with a local, aged sheep's milk cheddar and gussied up with hints of paprika and nigella seeds.

Evelyn's Crackers began as a summer greenmarket venture, and since that time, the business has made retail inroads and has also earned some deserved kudos in print and online media such as Canada's Globe and Mail and, I believe, Chowhound. If you visit the website (linked above), you'll also get to see some great photos of cracker production, catering activity, and travel attractions, all taken by Dawn's husband and business partner, Edmund Rek. Oh, yes, and in case you're wondering . . . there's an adorable picture of Miss Evelyn herself.

Now, if only I could convince Dawn to break into the U.S. market. Canada, America . . . that's still local, right?

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