I got the news, appropriately, via Twitter, i.e. a tweet: Canary seed has been granted the status of human food. Last month, regulatory authorities in Canada and the United States gave canary seed the human stamp of approval. Which raises the question, if canary seed is for the birds, why would we humans flock to eat it?
Before we consider the culinary credentials of canary seed, let’s consider the source. Farmers in Western Canada, particularly Saskatchewan, grow 80 to 90 per cent of the world’s supply of canary seed, a key component in bird feed blends. That’s a farm gate value of $90 million and more than 300,000 acres of prime farmland gone to the birds. However, the bird market is declining. From Bogota to Barcelona to Beijing fewer of we humans are feeding pet birds or our wild feathered friends. Now, farmers have a new market. What’s good for the goose is also good for Gordon and Gabrielle and Glenn.
A few years ago, I spoke with Carol Ann Patterson, a food scientist who was investigating the culinary potential of canary seed. She found that canary seed is nutritious, having higher levels of protein and unsaturated fat compared to other cereal grains. It’s gluten free, so it may be safe for those who can’t eat wheat. And it’s an alternative for sesame seeds, one of the leading food allergens in many parts of the world.
“It’s got a really nice clean flavour,” Patterson told me. “The two colours are quite distinct, so brown-coloured canary seed would look good in whole grain bread, while yellow canary seed has a really nice golden colour that we used in pasta, bread, crackers, tortillas, muffins, cookies and energy bars.”
It could also replace sesame seeds on bagels and hamburger buns.
Canary seed is native to the Canary Islands, a Spanish protectorate off the coast of West Africa. Both canary seed and canary birds were named for it. In Spanish-speaking countries, where canary seed is known as alpiste, it’s often sold as a health food supplement with broad but unsubstantiated medical claims. Patterson found evidence that Canada was importing canary seed in the late 1800s along with caraway, fenugreek and mustard seed. Canadian farmers began growing it in the 1970s, particularly around the towns of Eston and Eatonia in west-central Saskatchewan, as an alternate source of income.
Before canary seed could make the leap to human food, it had to undergo testing and transformation. It is naturally brown with little hairs similar to fibreglass that are extremely itchy for farmers to handle and an irritant to swallow and breathe. New varieties developed at the University of Saskatchewan have hairless hulls and an appealing yellow colour.
The Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan was formed in 2006, collecting a levy from canary seed farmers to support this research and initiate the novel food process. It could take some time before we start to see “canary seed” listed as an ingredient in our grocery stores, as the food industry figures out how to use it. But if you know a canary seed farmer, you might just grab a handful and, well, eat like a bird.
The recipe below comes from Inspired by Mustard by the Saskatchewan Mustard Commission. When I made it I switched in canary seed for the poppy seed and now I’m tweeting its praises.
Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large mixing bowl, combine egg, buttermilk, oil and prepared mustard and mix well. In another bowl, mix all remaining ingredients. Add dry ingredients to wet, mixing until moistened. Spray a 9×5-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Turn mixture into loaf pan and bake 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan. This is nicest served warm, but it is also very nice toasted.
- 1 large egg
- 1 c. buttermilk
- 1/4 c. canola oil
- 2 tbsp. prepared mustard
- 1 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 c. whole wheat flour
- 1/2 c. brown sugar
- 1/3 c. finely chopped nuts (your favourite)
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 3 tbsp. yellow mustard seed
- 2 tbsp. whole flaxseed
- 2 tbsp. sunflower seed
- 2 tbsp. poppy seed
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt