Saffron’s reputation precedes it. The spice’s delicate, alluring flavour and vibrant colour have made it one of the world’s most sought after ingredients for centuries, but less well-known is the fact Ontario has its very own producer in the form of Warkworth’s True Saffron. Co-owners Martin Albert and Eric Charbonneau embarked on a grand experiment in 2016, and the results have delighted foodies since.
“It’s a weird plant,” Albert laughs, sitting in Warkworth’s artisanal chocolate shop Centre & Main Chocolate Co. He’s agreed to meet here because there won’t be much to see on his farm until mid-October. “What plant goes to sleep in the middle of summer and wakes up and blooms in the fall? We’re wearing toques sometimes when we’re harvesting.”
For Albert and Charbonneau, the flower’s unusual qualities are part of the appeal. Saffron is a domesticated crocus cultivated primarily in Iran and the Mediterranean, so many farmers assume it’s unsuited to the cold Canadian climate. With the right soil and a few additional considerations, however, it can thrive. “Our climate is different than Europe or the rest of the world, so we decided to plant our bulbs thirty-seven centimetres deep. That makes a big difference, so we had no idea if they were going to come up through all that soil – and they did.” The deeper planting depth provides some protection against the coldest extremes, but Albert points out the saffron seems to enjoy a challenge. “Let it struggle, that’s what we find creates better, fuller pistils.”
Those pistils are the only part of the flower that’s harvested for culinary use, which goes some way to explain why saffron has earned the nickname “red gold.” 150,000 flowers are required to produce one kilogram of saffron, which is typically sold in quantities of one half-gram to two grams. That makes it something you’ll want to stop and savour carefully, but Albert is quick to point out the quantities needed for a recipe remain within reach. “It ends up being forty cents a plate if you use about twelve to fifteen pistils per group of four,” he says. “So it’s a myth that things are expensive when it’s a small container we don’t know how to use. Guys will think nothing of buying a two-four of beer for forty or fifty dollars, but there’s twenty-four portions.”
In fact, if you’re paying much less for saffron the odds are good you’ve looking at an adulterated or fake product. Up to three-quarters of the spice sold internationally as saffron has been cut with safflower, turmeric or other additives which replicate the appearance but not the taste or healthful antioxidants of real saffron. The problem has persisted for centuries — in 14th century Nuremberg, fraud was so widespread selling ersatz saffron was actually punishable by death.
21st century consumers, at least, can put their faith in True Saffron’s quality assurance. The 2017 harvest was submitted for laboratory analysis by the International Organization for Standardization, where UV spectrophotometry found it exceeded the criteria for the highest rating, Grade I. Given that saffron actually prefers poor soil, much of the praise is due to the care taken in the harvesting and drying phases. As Albert puts it, “That’s the art and that’s what gets analyzed – how well did you dry what the earth gave you?”
Based solely on the taste of True Saffron products, the answer is “extremely well.” Centre & Main Chocolate Co. carries the complete line, which includes the dried pistils as well as prepared products like saffron-infused syrups, vinegars, jellies, and mustards. Chocolatier Angela Roest says selling products made five kilometres down the road dovetails perfectly with her vision for the shop. “I noticed that in most chocolate-making and chocolatiering the flavours that were used tended to be either European traditions that continue in North America, or many chocolatiers were going to Asian ingredients like passion fruit and lychee,” she says. “These are wonderful ingredients that taste great, but when I would then go to shop for my family at farmer’s markets, these ingredients weren’t what I found there… so what I wanted to do was create chocolate with the ingredients that we find around us to create a taste of place with what grows in Kawarthas Northumberland.”
Being able to put saffron in her basket came as an unexpected but welcome twist. “I had this incredibly wonderful, rare product that is just at our doorstep. I was sure this was something I wanted to work on, and it did take some trial and error to figure out how I could use this really unique spice in my chocolate. But after some experiments I developed two bars with it: a pure saffron bar that I can make only once a year during harvest time, and then a saffron strawberry rhubarb bar that I can make year round.” The experimentation paid off when Roest’s strawberry rhubarb saffron bar took home a silver at the International Chocolate Awards Canadian Chocolatier Competition 2018.
On the savory end of the spectrum, farm-to-table restaurant ‘Sper often incorporates saffron into its dishes. A few doors down from Centre & Main Chocolate Co., Chef Douglas Hope is a big part of Warkworth’s burgeoning culinary scene. “We were friends before saffron came about, so I was there to see the wild trip they took,” he says. “Honestly, I thought ‘these guys are nuts!’” Hope quickly changed his tune after tasting the first year’s harvest. ‘Sper focuses on locally produced or foraged ingredients, so True Saffron was a natural candidate for their producer dinners. “We try at least once a month to do a producer’s dinner,” says Hope, adding that ‘Sper held four or five saffron dinners in 2018, with more in the works. The six-course menu changes every time, allowing Hope to explore different aspects of the spice. He’s fixed saffron martinis and duck with saffron-infused celeriac purée, but one recipe always remains a fixture. “There’s one dish I have to do every single dinner, and that’s risotto Milanese. To me, that has to be part of every dinner, to me that’s the ultimate classic dish.”
If you’re not fortunate enough to catch one of ‘Sper’s saffron-themed dinners, Albert recommends the uninitiated start with simple recipes in order to fully grasp the flavour. Rather than toss a few pistils into a dish and hope for the best, begin by preparing an infusion with water or cream and let it rest overnight. Adding the liquid to risotto, mashed potatoes, or even oatmeal will allow the flavour of saffron to shine through. Once you’ve got a good handle on saffron’s profile in basic sweet or savoury dishes, you can try adding complexity to the menu. The True Saffron website has a few recommendations, and Albert himself says his favourite recent discovery is oysters with a simple mignonette. “A little shallot, a little white wine vinegar and saffron, and you have the brightest mignonette!” He says, with an infectious enthusiasm.
It’s been an unusual path to farming for Albert and Charbonneau, who added saffron cultivation as a sideline to their acting careers. “We were living in Toronto and ten years ago at the end of March we decided that we wanted to put our feet and our hands in the earth and stop the concrete jungle thing,” he says. Although they had experience raising vegetables, he and Charbonneau were both indifferent at first to the suggestion they try their hands at saffron. At some point, however, the plant must have worked its magic on them: “Somehow within two weeks we’d ordered 50,000 bulbs!” Luckily for the Canadian food scene, their operation has only grown since. Visit TrueSaffron.ca for recipes, recommendations, and ordering details.
This interview is part of a series on the producers and restaurants who are hosting the 2019 Terroir Rural Retreat, an event that reconnects speakers, sponsors & media from the annual Terroir Symposium with the people and places that make Ontario’s food scene worth celebrating. Click here to discover how you can plan your taste-of-place trip with inspiration from this remarkable event and our unique & talented communities of producers.