The art of canning dates back to the late 18th century, when the French government developed the idea of preserving food in jars and tin cans with wines and oils to sustain their troops in the field. Since then, the art of canning and preserving food has taken on many iterations. What is now a cultish hobby for some home cooks was, back then, a necessity.
Today, Toronto Chef Charlotte Langley sees canning as an opportunity to provide quick, healthy meals that are simple and user-friendly. In June of 2014, Langley hung aside her apron and stepped from behind the pans (having worked as executive chef and chef de cuisine at some of Toronto’s top restaurants including Catch, The Atlantic and Cafe Belong) to launch her own business called Groundwork Food.
Growing up in Prince Edward Island, one of the items she fondly remembers eating in her formative years was Babineau Fisheries Chicken Haddie canned dish. This boneless mixture of cod and haddock along with hake and pollock (but no chicken) was a dish with comfort and ease for her—a product that she wanted to replicate to evoke similar feelings in others. With Babineau’s canned dishes no longer available in grocery stores anywhere in Canada, Charlotte decided to create her own offshoot in Groundwork Food’s Scout Canning. Charlotte shared, “The business didn’t really have direction, but I just wanted to make comfort food and have the chance to get risky.”
Since her heart always came back to canning, Langley decided to follow it, but flip the script a little. Instead of going the route of the mason jar (which she called “passé”), she opted to go with metal cans, and spent weeks online hunting for a one-of-a-kind can crimper. “I want to store this food I really care about,” Langley said. “But I want to make it visually appealing, not just for myself but for my customers, and challenge the way canned food is seen.”
One day, she stumbled across a post on Craigslist that advertised a 1920’s can crimper. After a few e-mail exchanges with the seller, she arranged for a visit which she described as “in the middle of no-man’s-land at an industrial factory.” The seller happened to be a hobbyist machine worker. The canner was his great-grandfather’s, and they used to can together when he was a child. The seller told Charlotte that he had held onto the can crimper for many years for sentimental value, but that he no longer needed it. After a quick test, she purchased it immediately. The seller tuned up the canner’s hydraulic system, placed it on its original table, and off it went to its new home.
Langley doesn’t want to can the usual jams and beans. She has bigger plans for Scout Canning and Groundwork Foods, partnering together with local farms and fisheries (over fifty different in her network) to break the stigma of canned food being poor-quality. “I want to put fish in the cans, like good fish including perch (with sumac, mint and water), walleye (with shaved cucumber, cucumber juice, oil, and fresh dill) and B.C. albacore tuna (with lemon) and package them in a surplus inventory so all people can enjoy Scout Canning, not just rich people,” said Langley. An eight-ounce can (which can feed two people) of her fish retails for $5.00 (CAD), whereas others on the market can retail for upwards of $10-$12 (CAD). For Langley, Scout Canning is about supporting everyone from the ground up, with everything from the cans themselves to the food in the cans locally sourced and produced. A product from Scout Canning is a product from the Canadian food community.
Over the 2014 winter holiday season, Scout Canning introduced a line of seasonal products (including Maritime Chic Meat Pie, Pork Creton Tourtière, Duck Rillettes & Maple Tourtière, and Lamb, Sumac and Summers’ Mint Tourtière), which all retailed for $10 each (CAN). Piles of orders came through. So far, customer feedback has been great.
To test one out myself, I took home the Maritime Chic Meat Pie and was shockingly surprised at just how easy it was to heat up. The instructions guided me to remove the can from the fridge (as a fresh prepared food, unlike other canned goods, Scout Canning’s products need to be refrigerated), and pop it into the oven at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes. With the packaging of the metal can, the heat conduction prevents the interior of the food from getting soggy or tasteless. Once the cooking time is over, you simply turn the can upside and plop it onto your plate, or you can eat directly from the can.
What’s next for Groundwork Food and Scout Canning? Right now, Langley’s main focus is to bring awareness and visibility of her company and products to the public. She has been working with a research development company on how to get Scout Canning products into grocery stores as a chef-prepared, canned food that you can keep in your fridge. One of the items she has brought to the table for the research development company was a smoked mackerel with a tomato confit. “They were impressed that the dish took less than ten minutes to prepare from my can and it looked like a restaurant-quality meal. It is possible eat well and have it taste good,” Langley said.
Another dream that she has is opening up a bar in Toronto that would serve up strictly Scout Canning items called…The Cannery. Says Langley, “There would be no pressure for people to order the food at the bar, but it would be a great place for people to test out what we’re doing and have a great bar snack at the same time.” Until then, Langley is going to continue making creative canning products and using her passion for good food to feed the masses.
Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a full-time community builder and official ‘head bee in charge’ of the food, fat and feminism blog, Fat Girl Food Squad. When she isn’t busy kickin’ ass and takin’ names, she is having serious feels for all things coffee, hip-hop, the art of drag, Kardashians, pizza and Doritos. You can find more bylines from her at Eater, BizBash and Toronto is Awesome. Follow her on Twitter: @amapod.