Around these parts, we know it as buckwheat, but it ain't wheat at all. In fact, it's not even a grain, which means it's not really a cereal either, although we pretty much consider it one.
And while it's the third in my little trifecta of noble and healthy winners with a distinctive Canadian bent, (barley and canola were the heroes of my two previous columns), buckwheat has a provenance and reputation as international as the UN's.
While it's always tough trying to pin down such things, general consensus reinforced by my new Oxford Companion to Food has it that native buckwheat, of which there are three species, has been gathered since ancient times in its native areas in eastern Asia. The wild ancestor of the cultivated type is perennial buckwheat (Fagopyrum diobotrys), which grows in the Himalayas and China, writes Alan Davidson, who took "only" 20 years to research and write the fabulous first edition, now in its third iteration.
Perennial buckwheat gave us our main cultivated species—sometimes called brank buckwheat (F. esculentum)—which likely came from Yunnan province. But there's also the more bitter Tartary buckwheat and notch-seeded buckwheat, both able to withstand harsh conditions in mountainous and northern regions.
Buckwheat, whose name in English translated from Dutch to "beech wheat," is actually related to rhubarb, sorrel and dock weed. Its lovely, little, dark triangular seeds that we eat look like mini-beech nuts.
As for the plant itself, at least today's most commonly cultivated one, it has heart- or arrow-shaped leaves and pretty little white flowers bees love. Which brings me to my own, personal Canadiana Heritage Minute: We all loved the delicious buckwheat pancakes mom made as well as any dark, syrupy buckwheat honey we could get our hands on in the golden heydays of 1950s Edmonton—products fresh from the Canadian prairies.
From China and Central Asia, buckwheat spread far and wide, becoming the basis for far more than pancakes. Northern Italy has its grey polenta from buckwheat. Then there are all sorts of delicious buckwheat noodles, including Japanese soba noodles, and a variety of porridges and gruels, like the iconic kasha of Russia and Eastern Europe. And of course, we couldn't forget the delicious buckwheat crepes of Brittany—a treat you don't have to hop on a plane to enjoy since they serve them perfectly at Crêpe Montagne in Whistler Village. (More on that in a sec.)
Part of buckwheat's popularity lies in its hardiness. Often used as a ground cover when fields need to lie fallow, it can thrive in poor conditions and challenging soils that lay low the bravest wheat and oats. These qualities made it a reliable choice as it spread from the East and through Europe during the Middle Ages, and later to North America in the baggage of immigrants.
I love the fact that buckwheat was a bit of a buckaroo renegade, too. In A Culinary History of Food, Jean-Louis Flandrin explains how European peasants in medieval times planted buckwheat between rows of wheat in regular fields to avoid paying the tithe since the buckwheat grew lower and you couldn't see it. Down-to-earth early tax evasion.
Another popularity factor is buckwheat's impressive nutritional value. A super source of easily-digested proteins and all nine amino acids, it's also high in fibre and nutrients like zinc, copper and manganese. Rocket fuel for a civilized world.
Sadly, buckwheat has somewhat fallen out of Canadian diets recently, an omission I think is about to do a 180. For starters, it's ideal for gluten-free diets, although in baked goods, you need to mix buckwheat flour with other flours to get good results. Now pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries are researching buckwheat's potential for lowering blood cholesterol and fighting diabetes, since it's so low on the glycemic index.
If you need more reasons to hop on the buckwheat bandwagon, just stop by Crêpe Montagne any afternoon between 3 and 5 p.m. and you'll enjoy a good show through the front window as one of their lovely chefs whips up buckwheat crepes for our dining pleasure. "We are so busy, we learned we have to make them in advance," says Laurence Gagnon, co-owner and operator of the popular eatery since 1997, along with her husband, Michel.
We have Laurence to thank for these delicious Breton-style buckwheat crepes at our doorstep. Born and raised in Brittany in northwest France, where big fields of buckwheat have been grown for centuries, she learned to make crepes at age 14 with one of the local "grandmothers."
"I just loved it!" she says. "I thought it was very fun to make crepes."
Laurence went on to work in a traditional creperie as a teenager, eventually coming to Canada. "It was already in my mind then that a nice creperie would be something I'd love to own," she explains.
The interesting thing is that in Brittany when the crepes, or galettes as they are known, are savoury (meaning filled with ham and Gruyere cheese), they're made from 100 per cent buckwheat flour—something she and Michel learned to temper by mixing in other flour since Canadian buckwheat flour has a stronger taste.
I think they've gotten it just right.
Mom, if you're reading, I really did love your buckwheat pancakes but the buckwheat crepes Laurence and Michel pull off are definitely ooh-la-la.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who urges you to pick up some buckwheat flour at Whistler's Nesters Market or Whole Foods Markets in Vancouver and try your own creations.