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Proven success: Wheatless Wonder bread rises well in Huntingdon

Imagine discovering an allergy to a favourite food – so goes the story of Cathy Schouten. At age 42, the mother of three began to experience progressively worsening digestive problems. She visited her doctor, concerned about celiac disease; her doctor was dismissive, saying that she had no family history and was too old to develop it. At this point Schouten was very sick, anemic, and losing weight. She decided to conduct her own tests. She stopped eating gluten for a month and changed her diet to just meat, rice, and vegetables. Within a couple of weeks, she started to feel much better. At her next visit to her doctor, they suggested she return to gluten for two months in order to test for her allergic reaction to gluten. “No! I’m not doing that!” she replied – a return to the pain was not an option.

The business of gluten-free

After identifying the problem, Schouten looked closely into gluten-free foods, which were, at the time, often tasteless and usually frozen. “It was that frozen cardboardy bread,” she sighs, “I had been raised on good crusty French bread!” She was a stay-at-home mom and cooking a lot, so the obvious choice was to experiment with gluten-free recipes. “I had studied biochemistry and chemical engineering, so I do have some knowledge of proteins and how they interact. I was able to translate that into coming up with recipes that have a balance of protein and fat, so that the bread tasted good and had a nice texture.”

 

Cathy Schouten sits on the store balcony with grandson Benoît and daughter Margot who runs the store PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois

 

From there, Schouten began a business, taking six loaves of bread to the local health food store near her home in Hudson. As more orders came in, she realized that she needed more space and renovated her garage; then the business expanded again, occupying a 300-square-foot warehouse in Vaudreuil-Dorion. After eight years there, the bakery business  Wheatless Wonder  was doing well, and the entire family was involved. Schouten realized that she needed to buy her own business space.

They had been working with Huntingdon-based Valens Farms, and she says they “thought Huntingdon had nice bones and nice architecture.” They decided to purchase a property there. Mark Bye, who delivered bread for Valens, mentioned that he was moving to Ontario and wanted to sell Grove Hall. It seemed like a sign. Schouten took one look at the hall, and she recalls thinking, “That could be interesting for us.”

The family bought Grove Hall in 2021. The hall is attached to the Braithwaite Building which houses two commercial units and two apartments. Schouten and her husband live in one apartment and the other is presently being restored. Grove Hall itself was originally St. Andrews Presbyterian Church and was built in 1861. The attached land extends to the Chateauguay River, and it holds a carriage house and a barn.

Schouten is very conscious of the architectural significance of the property. Understandably the building required renovations in order to house the bakery, but attention and care were paid as the original wooden floor was covered to accommodate health regulations. The grandness of the hall is preserved beneath the bakery’s transformations.

The products

Most Wheatless Wonder products go to the greater Montreal area. They travel as far as Val David and extend to Saint-Hyacinthe. Wheatless Wonder has an online store and also a storefront in Huntingdon at 149 Chateauguay Street, which is open Friday and Saturday with extended hours in summer.

 

The industrial ovens await the next batch of artisanal breads PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois

 

The bread is baked every night except Tuesdays and Fridays, baked overnight so it is fresh and cool enough to bag and is ready to transport during the day. “Bread is our core product,” Schouten explains; they have over 30 different bread products. On average they produce about 50 kilos of bread a day, about 1000 units. They also have a vegan line of breads and bagels, and they sell basic “kits” that allow their customers to add some ingredients and bake their own bread at home. The gluten-free flour is milled in Ontario at a dedicated mill.

Schouten says she dreams of opening an outdoor market similar to the former Finnegan’s in Hudson. “I would like to have a food hub,” she says, situated behind the hall beside the river making use of the barn. In the near future, she is hoping to offer lunches and a quiet place to eat.

After two and a half years in the Valley, how is Schouten feeling about the move? “I really appreciate the people of Huntingdon,” she says. “We are glad to be here.”

What is celiac disease?

Cathy Schouten’s story is a common one. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in every 100 people worldwide has celiac disease and almost 30 per cent of those people go undiagnosed. Celiac disease (CD) is an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. This can cause malabsorption of nutrients and severe digestive issues, and it can make the body vulnerable to serious diseases like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and, in extreme cases, intestinal cancer. CD can also present neurologically. Doctors can identify CD by blood tests or biopsies taken from the small intestine.

Celiac Canada reports that women are affected by CD more than men, but data suggests than many men go undiagnosed. There is no cure for CD and there are no medications to treat the disease. The only way to deal with this condition is to switch to a gluten-free diet. The good news is that a strict non-gluten diet can heal or slow down intestinal damage over a few years’ time. Gluten is found in a wide variety of grains like barley, rye, wheat, and some oats.

The cost of a gluten-free diet can range from 50 to 150 per cent higher than a normal diet, and the cost has risen since the pandemic.

It is unclear why CD seems to be more prevalent than it was 50 years ago. One theory is that modern medicine is better at diagnosing the condition; another is that wheat is processed differently today and there is a widespread use of gluten in many processed foods and medications.

May is Celiac Awareness month.

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