On a recent visit to Panne Rizo, the bakery’s shelves were bursting with sugar cookies, pecan shortbread, rum balls, cinnamon dots — wee scrolls of cinnamon and sugar — and much more. A table by the door boasted seasonal goodies such as fruitcake and pfeffernusse (a kind of German cookie often covered in sugar), and the front counter beckoned with muffins and squares.
And all of it is gluten-free.
Nestled on a strip of Cornwall Avenue, the bakery and cafe was established in 1989 — decades before the current gluten-free trend. Despite its name, Panne Rizo is more than a rice bakery. "We’re using higher quality flours like amaranth, sorghum, and almond. Flours that have more nutrition and flavour," says owner Steve Tsonev. An employee since 2008, he bought the shop in 2011. "Gluten-free has always been seen as lower quality than regular baking in texture and flavour. Over the past two years, we’ve created 20 to 30 new items and we’ve improved 50 per cent of the items."
Similarly, Arlene Kennedy is "bringing a second generation of gluten-free baking to Vancouver." The owner of My Goodness! Gluten and Wheat-free Kitchen, Kennedy opened her shop near Main and Broadway in June 2011. The retail shop is only open on Fridays and Saturdays. The rest of the week, Kennedy focuses on her wholesale business and teaches baking classes.
"One of the most important things I teach is that you have to understand the flours," says Kennedy. "I use about 16 different flours in various combinations. Once you get the right combination you can often substitute it in mainstream recipes for all-purpose flour."
The gluten-free world is rife with labels, including celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, wheat intolerance and more. For celiacs, exposure to gluten can cause painful autoimmune reactions. Tsonev and Kennedy go to great lengths to ensure that their ingredients haven’t been cross-contaminated with gluten. "Sourcing is our biggest challenge," says Tsonev. "We need to make sure that any ingredients [we buy] aren’t processed on the same line as wheat products."
However, both businesses have seen a shift from people who cannot eat gluten to those who are gluten-free by choice. Call it gluten-free-curious if you like, but the trend has made its way into mainstream bakeries.
Case in point: The Last Crumb Bakery and Cafe near Main and 15th Avenue, where owner Joanne Lee specializes in nostalgic baked goods with a contemporary feel. Hers is not a gluten-free bakery, but the astute observer will notice the gluten-free options tucked among the pies, cakes and cookies.
Says Lee, "I know that people who are celiac wouldn’t be able to set foot in here, but people who choose not to have gluten can come in and not feel like they’re missing out on anything." Lee’s gluten-free offerings include various scones, as well as a coconut loaf and chocolate chip cookie.
The real question is, how does it all taste? Panne Rizo’s apple-spice muffin is one of the best muffins in town, period; My Goodness! Gluten and Wheat-free Kitchen’s quejos — miniature Brazilian breads — are cheesy and addictive; and The Last Crumb’s gluten-free scones could win over even the staunchest skeptic.
For now, I’m happy to continue my love affair with all things gluten. But I’ll confess — there’s a growing collection of alternative flours in my pantry, and I’m not afraid to use them.
Learn more about gluten-free living at the Gluten-Free Expo, taking place Jan. 13 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Visit glutenfreeexpo.ca/bc/vancouver.