Preserve by flora & farmer is the place to go for pickled items, spreads and ferments from owner Kim Bialkoski, along with products from some of the Manitoba’s best food makers.
Its shelves are brimming with dried pastas and eggs from Nature’s Farms, bags of wild rice from Wild Man Ricing, Cooks Creek kimchi, SMAK Dab mustards, locally roasted coffee, local culinary books and of course, all the best products from flora & farmer—the business Bialkoski started in 2013.
It’s a charming, thoughtfully curated setting that provides a great snapshot of what the local prairies produce, while the smells that waft in from neighbours Hildegard’s Bakery will make you want to buy some spreads (a must is the peach Bellini, made with Prosecco to lend some gorgeous acidity) or ferments (we put the fermented salsa on everything and those summer squash pickles with that crunch and zing…exceptional!) and just load up that bread.
But for Bialkoski, getting to this spot has been more than a pickle. As you’ll read in the interview below, a near-fatal biking accident prompted her to start the business, while canning, creating and educating consumers isn’t always a jam.
And yet, in her store on the corner of Portage and Maryland, she preserves.
How did you get started?
I’ve always been pursuing cooking since I was a kid. The Urban Peasant is something I would watch every day when I got home from school. I’m self-taught. I started jamming, pickling and preserving around 2009-2010.
It stared with fermenting. It came from a health perspective for the most part; I became interested in the science and chemistry of fermenting. I read Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentations… and soon I was making what I do believe was one of Manitoba’s first commercially fermented food products.
After I started flora and farmer I entered my apple kraut into The Great Manitoba Food Fight and they wanted to have it tested before any of the judges would have a bite; they were so scared of it because it was fermented.
Why did you start the business?
I started Flora and Farmer as a business in 2013 and opened up Preserve in 2019, but it took a year to build.
Prior to all of it, I had been working as a waitress at a neighbourhood greasy spoon for about a decade and as a private gardener. During that time I was run over on my bicycle. I was severely injured and I’m lucky to be alive.
I was heading down the Arlington Bridge to a gardening gig when a large van pulled in front of me and I thought, "Oh sh#%, I’m about to die." I hit it hard enough that my arm broke in half—bone came out and everything—and then I went over the handlebars and my face broke through the passenger window.
They told me I was going to need plastic surgery. My neck went through the sideview mirror… and then I fell on my right side and broke my shoulder blade and collar bone and my face was almost gone. After, a lot of people thought I had been in a fire as my face was looked burnt off. Now [she says while chuckling and pointing to her face] I’m pretty happy with how this turned out.
I lost my job because of that…but it led me to start flora and farmer. I’d lost everything because of it, but I’m a real fighter. I got out of the hospital after a week, took a couple days, then I started to try to take care of myself and my son. It wasn’t long before I knew I needed to do something. I’m not a sit around and do-nothing person, so I started canning—even with two broken arms.
It was really like my therapy. Back then I was a super hardcore cyclist, I didn’t own a vehicle and I rode my bike everywhere. I was really physically active in other ways. I did Muay Thai. I was hoping to become a professional weightlifter. I was just a real go-getter. So, I lost all of that.
Those were huge parts of my identity that I felt like I completely lost. So this was a way for me to feel like myself in a way again and to re-form a new me.
My accident was in May 2012. My first sale at a farmers’ market was just a few months later in September. I sold a couple hundred jars of things over the weekend, which was really encouraging, although at the time I was charging way too little.
What’s in the name?
Flora and farmer comes from ferments being so good for your gut flora—plus I love flowers and gardening—and then farmer is totally relevant too because we are so dependent on farmers for everything. They deserve so much more credit than they get. Our world would fall apart without them.
What sets your products apart?
I’ve always made my products the same way, without using thickeners or all kinds of sugar. I’ve always just been cooking down the fruit.
There’s still some sugar—but way less. Most jams are about 70 per cent sugar by volume. We use about 75 per cent less sugar than a major brand in our spreads; ours is always under 25 per cent. We reduce our fruit by one third to a half, so you get about half to a full pound of fruit per jar, with a few tablespoons of sugar per jar.
What are the best sellers?
Savoury fig is our number one. It has caramelized onions, roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar and organic figs and it’s a big seller around Christmas time for charcuterie boards. Then there’s blueberry basil and our new one, peach Bellini.
Raspberry grapefruit has been a best-seller in the past, but everything changes seasonally. Last year it ended up Prairie Celebration, which is strawberries, rhubarb and cava.
And then when it comes to not spreads, it’s the sauerkraut, the apple kraut and my Hot and Drunk Dill Pickles—I think it’s the ounce of vodka that does it there.
Do you ever have to educate customers as to your food costs?
Oh definitely. I’m chatty to begin with and I really like connecting with people. Even before I opened up this place I would admit to thinking, "Well, I can make that for less"—I was that person before. But it’s not just the ingredients—it’s our time and our packaging and our intellectual labour.
A huge food company, that may own 100 smaller companies, can buy all their jars at an enormous economy of scale discount. They could be paying a penny, whereas I pay a dollar because I’m not ordering three boatloads of jars.
I feel like that education needs to happen to support local food more because we are all small-scale makers. We’re people, we’re not just businesses if that makes sense. None of us are taking rockets to the moon, we are struggling to pay our rent.
We love the underdog and I’m an underdog.
Preserve by flora and farmer is located at 686 Portage Avenue (the door is located on the corner of Maryland) and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can also order online here.
The above interview has been edited for length and clarity.