GccGy Marnie Helliwell, as told to Nancy Fornasiero
Bannock is a staple enjoyed across the country by native Canadians, and each tribe—even each family—has their own favourite version. It’s also known as frybread, bannaq, galett and sapli’l. This particular recipe was passed on to Tofino, B.C.’s Marnie Helliwell in the traditional First Nations way: via word of mouth. It came from her friend, Grace George, who received the recipe from her own mother, Helen.
Ever since my seven-year-old son, Colby, first tasted bannock at Wickaninnish Community School back in kindergarten, he can’t stop talking about it. He learned about it thanks to Grace, a local First Nations woman and elder who works at our elementary school as a First Nations education assistant. She teaches the kids about the culture and history of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. Whether she’s sharing food, teaching about traditional dances and songs or telling a folktale, we parents (native or not) appreciate the fact that she shares her rich heritage with our kids. But nothing gets Colby more excited than when Grace makes a visit to make bannock. “Mom,” he comes home gushing, “Grace makes the bestest bannock!”
So, when my friend Lisa Ahier, the chef at Tofino’s popular SoBo restaurant, organized a potluck dinner and told us each to bring a Canadian dish that meant something special to us, I knew right away what I was bringing: bannock. Nothing says Canada to me more than this dish; and besides, my kids love to eat it probably more than anything else.
Full disclosure: I’m not much of a cook. In the past, when we’ve enjoyed bannock as a family, it was usually because Grace made it or because we ate it during our travels around the province. Bannock is often served at local festivals, sold at farmers markets and dished up at celebrations hosted by the First Nations families in our tight-knit community. My kids and I make a point of sampling it any time we can—and the consensus is that Grace’s Nuu-chah-nulth recipe is the ultimate version. I decided it was time to fully embrace this dish and learn to make it myself!
Grace has become a good friend of mine, so I was pretty sure I could get my hands on the recipe. All the same, I followed the proper First Nations etiquette of formally requesting the family recipe from an elder. (Luckily Grace is an elder!) I couldn’t believe how simple the recipe was: only four ingredients.
The really funny part was when I popped over to the Tofino Co-op to buy the ingredients and caused a bit of a ruckus. I bumped into another Nuu-chah-nulth lady I know and innocently asked what sort of oil I should buy. “Oil?!” she shouted. “Why are you using oil? Biscuits have fat in them, bannock doesn’t!” Other Nuu-chah-nulth shoppers heard the fuss, then they gathered around, adding their two cents’ worth:
“Yes, you can use oil, just don’t overmix!”
“My grandmother always said to use high heat if you want a good crust.”
“Water’s fine; no need to use milk.”
“Mother always fried it at our house.”
Clearly, there are a lot of bannock recipes out there, but I knew if I wanted to keep Colby happy, I’d better stick to Grace’s instructions. While the bannock baked, Colby and my daughter, Mackenzie, impatiently inhaled the delicious aroma, and when we dove into it, still warm from the oven, they said it was as good as Grace’s. Phew.
The next time I made it, it was for the whole gang at Lisa’s paddleboarding potluck dinner. It was a huge hit with my girlfriends, too, especially when served with jam made from local berries. Not bad, for a non-baker like me!
I love this dish even though I don’t have a drop of aboriginal blood. The culture of our native peoples really means a lot to me—their traditions, their respect for nature. Their sense of spirituality especially lands with me: When my son Braeden passed away a few years ago, we had a beautiful service based on the Nuu-chah-nulth culture that brought me a lot of comfort.
First Nations culture is so interwoven into our lives here that I feel a part of it. It’s hard for people outside Tofino to understand that. It’s really something special.
Read more: See three simple ways to cook bannock here.
Traditional Bannock, courtesy of Marnie Helliwell
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
6 cups (1.5 L) flour
6 tbsp (90 mL) baking powder
3½ cups (875 mL) milk, warmed
¼ cup (60 mL) vegetable oil
1. In large bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, milk and oil. Stir until dough comes together in a ball; do not overmix. Shape into rough oval; place on baking sheet or oven-safe casserole dish.
2. Bake in 400°F (200°C) oven “until a beautiful golden brown,” about 30 minutes.
3. Serve warm or cooled. Excellent with B.C. blackberry jam.
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