N.S. farm takes advantage of moderate climate to grow world's most expensive spice
It's a crop normally associated with Afghanistan, Iran or Spain, but Coastal Grove Farm in Nova Scotia has been successfully producing saffron, the world's most expensive spice, since 2021.
Cynthia Bazinet and Matthew Roy moved to Port La Tour in Shelburne County from New Hampshire at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Roy, who is 55, has a degree in ecological agriculture and has been involved in farming for 25 years.
He said his wife has family roots in the Lunenburg area and, as they were looking forward to retirement, they decided to move to Nova Scotia.
"We realized that the stretch from Shelburne to Yarmouth was known as the banana belt of Nova Scotia," Roy said. "For us the quality of the soil doesn't matter because we can amend that and change that. It really was picking the location for the moderated climate."
They eventually intend to produce homegrown tea but those plants take up to seven years to mature. They needed an interim crop and settled on saffron, which was not being produced in the province and could be harvested relatively quickly.
A prized spice since ancient times, saffron is produced from saffron crocus flowers. The stigmas of the flower are harvested and dried to produce a spice that adds a unique flowery flavour and a vibrant yellow colour to food.
It is a key ingredient in a number of regional dishes including paella in Spain, bouillabaisse in France and biryani in India.
A small portion of the 4.5-hectare organic farm has been devoted to growing 500,000 crocuses, Roy said. They also produce other products like edible flowers for the restaurant industry.
With the climate of the area expected to grow warmer, he said he is expecting even milder fall months in future, which will enable better harvests.
Harvesting saffron is labour intensive, involving collecting the flowers by hand and carefully removing the stamens.
According to Roy, it takes 180 flowers to make a gram of the spice.
His son and daughter-in-law moved to the farm to help, he said. They're now among the first farm technician apprentices in the province, under a program started by the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency in 2022.
Come harvest time, the family spends a lot of time together processing the flowers, Roy said.
"It is a lot of conversation time around the table, let's put it that way," he said. "So you want to be surrounded with people that you enjoy talking with."
A hit with chefs
The saffron is sold from the farm's online store and at the local farmers market and is a hit with some prominent local chefs.
Michelin-trained chef Gabrielle LeGuerrier, of Halifax-based GourmetGab by Pertu, says the farm's saffron is "extremely fragrant" and sweeter than the varieties she was used to while working in Europe.
LeGuerrier said she tries to find as many local ingredients as possible because it's more environmentally sustainable and because of the relationships she's able to build with suppliers and farmers.
"When you're talking about local, you're also talking for the most part about freshness," LeGuerrier said. "It could also be that the shocking freshness of having this year's harvest directly from them, versus something that might be sitting on the shelves."
Bill Osborne, the executive chef of BKS at the upscale Muir hotel in Halifax described the farm's saffron as "deep, rich and vibrant."
Osborne said the saffron is used at BKS and at the hotel's fine dining restaurant Drift.
"What we're doing here, specifically, at Drift and BKS, are a celebration of Nova Scotia," he said.
"So to be able to find something so unbelievably great right at our our doorstep helps us really celebrate Nova Scotia in a new way."
'More luxurious experience'
Using local ingredients also provides a more luxurious experience for her clients because it helps them feel more connected to their food, she said.
Roy said he plans to increase the farm's marketing effort to raise awareness about the many uses of saffron, including in baking and seafood dishes.
He said they expect demand for the product will grow this year and are trying to increase production. But he also remains committed to giving back to the land.
"The entire time I've been farming, it's been about how do we improve the soils here for the next generation? How do we minimize our impact in this area and be able to still produce food for a community?" Roy said.
"I've always had that in my growing systems, and it's a critical piece to make it so that it's actually sustainable going forward."
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