Strawberries changed Lauren Elbe’s life.
Well, as much as any fruit could. At the least, Elbe—founder of the Vancouver-based nut milk company Nuez—can attribute a moment of great epiphany to one tiny, seedy berry. “I definitely remember when I was in Greece on a modelling contract, not eating really, and it was my first time ever at a farmers’ market,” Elbe recalls. “I remember coming down from the stairs at the place that I was living and smelling the strawberries. It smelled like there was artificial strawberry fragrance in the air, and I was like, ‘What is that smell?’ and it was like, ‘Oh, that’s real food!’”
These days, real food is Elbe’s business. About two years ago, she launched her line of organic, handmade almond, hazelnut, and walnut milks. Without any preservatives, additives, or other funky stuff, Nuez is radically different than the big-box nut milks that have inundated the shelves of North American supermarkets of late. “I don’t even consider it a real food product,” says Elbe of the commercially-made nut milks. “It’s like Franken-food, in my opinion.” Made in a kitchen, not a laboratory, from organic and often local ingredients, Nuez is as simple as it gets. Expanded from the original almond milk, Nuez flavours now include chocolate hazelnut, date almond, and rose almond, as well as a barista blend steamed up at local spots such as Elysian Coffee, 33 Acres, and Exile Bistro.
Sitting at a sun-filled 33 Acres, her thick, blonde hair tucked into slightly uneven braids, she explains that she had to start from the beginning. “Getting into natural food was a huge, long process. I grew up in Burnaby, with two working parents who didn’t cook a lot, didn’t have time, or didn’t care about cooking,” she says. “So I didn’t have a lot of food culture, very little homemade food, no dinnertime. It was like TV dinner and go, fast things. It wasn’t like watching mom chop the onions.” In her teens, Elbe began her modelling career, its pressures to be thin further distorting her relationship with food. “I feel that low-fat was still kind of on the radar and low-carb was huge—all the diets were crazy,” she says. “There weren’t any good food bloggers or role models or anything. It was all about how to eat the fewest calories.”
It was on a modelling trip to Europe that Elbe encountered those fateful strawberries—and tomatoes, too. “Every neighbourhood in Athens has its own market once a week,” Elbe says. “It was just awesome, and people were trying to hawk me things, and I just saw a lot of pride and delicious food. You buy a tomato and just eat it like an apple.” Elbe returned to Vancouver shortly after. “Well, they kicked me back because I wasn’t skinny enough,” Elbe laughs, adding: “Way too many tomatoes.” In Vancouver, she began to explore her interest in food and cultivating a culinary culture for herself. “I guess I was really hungry—physically hungry—and really interested in good-tasting food,” she says.
Sparked by a cleanse of sorts where she was challenged to make everything from scratch, Elbe came to the realization that much of the so-called “health foods” weren’t all they were made out to be, commercial nut milks included. “I was drinking it all the time,” she says. “I became aware that that’s not I wanted at all. People think it’s healthy, but it’s not at all.” Elbe points to the long list of preservatives, additives, fillers, and stabilizers that give carton nut milk long shelf lives and questionable nutrition: “There’s a lot of corporate media telling us that things are good for us, and it was like, ‘Wait a minute, who eats this? Why is this good for us?’”
Elbe began selling her nut milks at farmers’ markets, freshly pressed and packed in mason jars. While adorable, the milk’s abrupt shelf life was an inconvenience. “Perishable products that last three days are a headache. It’s inefficient on the production side, distribution side, and on the customer’s side,” says Elbe. To bypass all these nutritional sabotages, Elbe came up with her trademarked Fresh-Frozen packages. Blended with a bit of water, the small blocks of concentrate yield super fresh, convenient nut milk.
Each weekend, Elbe can be found at local farmers’ markets hawking her products (Nuez can also be purchased at retailers including Le Marche St. Georgé, Harvest, and Nectar Juicery). “Farmers’ markets have been a really awesome experience,” says Elbe. “Farmers as a group are the coolest, most down-to-earth, happy, supportive, healthy people I’ve ever met. There was a week between the summer and the winter markets and I was like, ‘What do I do? My community!’” Standing alongside purveyors of produce and cool, Elbe looks pretty good offering her own contribution.