To many people, the mention of food crops grown in Canada conjures up images of wheat, barley, flax, rye, oats and canola growing in vast fields. But the bounty produced across our country doesn’t just stop at cereal grains and cooking oils. There’s a whole wide world of weird Canadian crops that you may not have known about, often raised in quantities capable of feeding more than your average farmer’s market crowd. Not only does our home and native land practically sustain international appetites for mustard, determined growers from coast to coast are proving that it’s possible to farm everything from fiddlehead ferns to black Périgord truffles. Read on and discover some the more unusual food crops cultivated across Canada.
When it comes to berry production, Canada has grown beyond the usual blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and even saskatoons. Haskaps are the wave of the future, according to the Haskap Canada Association, which has over 70 members from Saskatchewan and Alberta. The hardy, elongated purple berries, also known as honeyberries, have enjoyed popularity in Russia since the ‘50s but have been consumed by Japan’s indigenous Ainu people for much longer. Similarly, sea buckthorn has links to Russia and Asia and is showing promise for Canadian producers. The yellow berries, which grow on shrubs, gained a following as the major ingredient of the Chinese Olympic team’s official sports drink during the 1988 games in Seoul, and they’ve lately been pleasing foodie palates in fruit-leather form at renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.
Local flavour: The Berry Farm, a U-pick farm just outside Edmonton, A.B., grows both haskaps and sea buckthorn.
It’s not for humans (yet – the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan is working to change that), but canary seed is a food crop in the sense that, without it, pet birds all over the planet would be going hungry. Canada is both the largest producer and exporter of canary seed in the world, accounting for 70 per cent of international supply. We ship huge amounts of seed off to Mexico, Belgium, Brazil and other countries where, presumably, it’s gobbled up by domestic avian populations. Native to the Middle East, canary seed is a fairly recent crop to be adopted by Western Canadian farmers and has been grown primarily in Saskatchewan since the late ‘70s.
Local flavour: Armstrong Milling Company in Hagersville, O.N., produces both wild and domestic bird seed varieties using Canadian canary seed.
Considered a seasonal delicacy, fiddleheads are the young shoots of the ostrich fern. Indigenous to Canada, they’re so named because their curled forms look somewhat like the headstock of a violin. They grow well in damp and shady areas, and are harvested wild from about mid-April to mid-June each year. Packed with antioxidants and vitamins, fiddleheads have been embraced by both the health food community and the foodie sect.
Local flavour: The country’s first official fiddlehead farm, NorCliff Farms Inc., is Canada’s largest fiddlehead producer and packager, harvesting from millions of wild plants spread over a thousand-acre area.
Brewers can’t do without the green flower cones from the climbing hops vine. A signature part of the flavor profiles of nearly all beers made today, hops were once a common sight across the countryside in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but crops all but disappeared twenty years ago after being hit by pestilence and price drops. Today, Canadian hops are enjoying a small-scale revival, fed mainly by the craft brewing industry.
Local flavour: Crannog Ales, based on a farm near Sorrento, B.C., is the epitome of local: its ales are brewed in small batches using well water from its own land and, yes, they’re made with organic hops grown onsite.
This fragrant purple herb is not just for old ladies anymore. Popular in Victorian times for everything from soaps to sachets to shortbread, lavender is finding new life in Canada with a surge in both popularity and production; boutique farms dot the countryside from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island. Culinary lavender varieties are often enjoyed in creations including lavender cakes and lavender lemonade, and as a component of an Americanized version of herbes de Provence.
Local flavour: The Okanagan Lavender Farm in Kelowna, B.C., grows over 60 kinds of lavender and produces its own lavender jelly, lavender loaf mix and lavender sugar, along with a diverse line of non-culinary lavender products.
Lovers of hot dogs everywhere would be sans an essential condiment without Canada, which accounts for an astonishing 75 to 80 per cent of worldwide mustard exports. Grown for the most part in Alberta and Saskatchewan, mustard produced in Canada includes brown, yellow and oriental varieties, and is typically shipped off in its dry form for value-added manufacturing elsewhere. The United States is, by and large, the biggest importer of Canadian mustard, followed by Belgium and Germany.
Local flavour: Brassica Mustard in Calgary, A.B., has supplied restaurants and customers with four varieties of gourmet mustard for a decade, using locally-sourced ingredients.
Everyone knows about hazelnuts, walnuts, and chestnuts, but what about butternuts and heartnuts? All of these nuts are grown in orchards throughout Canada, though in fairly modest quantities. Some Canadian nut orchards also produce pecans and edible pine nuts. Oh, and butternuts, for the uninitiated, are also known as white walnuts, while the heartnut is a variety of Japanese walnut.
Local flavour: The Gellatly Nut Farm in Westbank, B.C., was Canada’s first commercial nut orchard; it continues to operate as a regional park and working heritage farm. Enjoy its nut harvest from late September to early November.
Pulses include beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, and Canada happens to be a major player in the international pulse market, producing 30 per cent of the world’s peas and 17 per cent of the world’s lentils. Canadian pulses are grown mainly in Saskatchewan and are exported worldwide. Almost half of Canada’s chickpeas are sent to India, while the majority of our lentils go to Algeria and Bangladesh. Green lentils have traditionally dominated Canadian fields, but over the past few years, red lentils have become a significant export crop as well.
Local flavour: Best Cooking Pulses Inc., based in Portage la Prairie, M.B., is a Canadian company producing organic pulse flours, including organic chickpea flour, from domestic crops.
Truffles aren’t exactly synonymous with Canada, but a few innovative agriculturalists are on their way to changing that. Black Périgord truffles, one of the most highly prized delicacies in the world, are being successfully cultivated on at least one Vancouver Island farm, the culmination of a decade’s worth of planning and preparation.
Local flavour: A team of trained Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dogs is on hand to sniff out so-called “black diamonds” from under the Garry oak trees at Duckett Truffieres, Canada’s first truffle farm, in Parksville, B.C.
Not really rice at all, these aromatic black grains come from an aquatic grass that has the distinction of being one of the only cereals native to Canada. It’s not exactly suited to cultivation, growing in shallow water along rivers, streams and lakes with slow and constant currents, so it’s typically harvested wild in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Traditionally, Aboriginal peoples paddled their canoes through the tall stalks and beat the tops with canes, causing the falling grains to collect in the bottom of the boats.
Local flavour: Manomin Canadian Wild Rice is an Ojibway co-operative in Dryden, O.N., that buys wild rice grains from local Aboriginal harvesters before roasting them in a roaster designed to simulate traditional processes and packaging them for the market.