For all of May, Canadian lentils were celebrated across Canada. Many of our top chefs were “engaged” while a whole lot of Canadians had their “first date” with this great ingredient while peeking into their favourite chef’s kitchen. Then they voted. The prizes and all winners will be announced by Wednesday, June 13th.
The following is the story of Canadian Lentils.
For most Canadians, until very recently, lentils have been a bit of a culinary mystery. It’s been a very new crop to our agricultural industry, too. But over the the past 30 or so years, Canada has leapt onto the world stage in both breeding and production of this extraordinary high-protein (7 g./cup) plant food. We have the climate and the skill sets to grow lentils better than any other country on earth and we’re doing it. Canada produces 67 per cent of the world’s lentil supply. In 2011, over 2.55 million acres of lentils were planted in Canada by over 5,000 lentil growers. Canada is the world’s leading exporter of lentils (green, red, black and du Puy), exporting a total value of $872,956,572 in lentils in 2011.
The growth of the lentil industry is really an amazing success, one that rivals that of other iconic crops like wheat and canola. And it all spirals back to the dreams and the tenacity of one feisty agricultural researcher, Dr Al Slinkard, Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan. Because of him, Canada is now the world’s leading exporter of lentils. His Laird lentil is to the culinary world what Marquis wheat was and Yukon Gold potatoes are – a true, unmitigated star!
Slinkard grew up in a family of four kids on a small quarter-section farm of cutover timberland at the base of a mountain in northern Idaho. He labels himself a ‘hillbilly’. He was invited to join the University of Saskatchewan in 1972 to be in charge of “peas and special crops”. Was it for the money? The prestige? It was neither. He accepted because of the colossal challenge that the work presented. At that time “it was very small department trying to do research for 45 million acres of cropland.” The main crop was durum wheat and fewer than a dozen farmers in the province had tried to grow lentils. He looked around the province and determined that there was potential for pulse crops like those he’d seen growing in Washington State, next to where he’d grown up.
He released the large-seeded green lentil, Laird in 1978, and in 1980, another one he named Eston which was also green but decidedly smaller. Both have become standards for the crop – they’ve become the “Kleenex” or “Tim’s” of the aggie community. Another cultivar that he developed and one that demonstrates the real difficulties in marketing new crops is a white lentil he named CDC Gold. It has a gorgeous golden hue when cooked and Slinkard, who loves to eat, serves it in a salad. Someday it will find its way to the tables of Canada. As the late Gary Johnston of Yukon Gold fame used to say, “Plant breeders must be patient.”
The beauty of lentils is that they take so little fuel to cook. A pot of split Eston lentils cooks perfectly in less than 15 minutes without the pre-soaking that beans need. For wealthy North America, this may not mean much but for much of the world which suffers from a lack of available fuel, it means a meal.
So Love Your Lentils Canada and stay tuned for the announcement of the Winners’ Circle.
Twitter @CdnLentils #lovelentils