An hour's drive from downtown Ottawa, in the midst of some very scenic, but very frozen, Quebec farmland, there's a hive of 100-mile food that's buzzing away. And some fabulous smells wafting across the snowy fields. Bryson Farms, best known in the Ottawa area for its gourmet greens and, in summer, heritage tomatoes, carrots and beets, has just begun an exciting new experiment to bring us local, organic tomatoes, corn, broccoli and other vegetables year round, as well as some local-and-organic prepared dishes.
How? By matching the landscape. The new foods are frozen.
"It just seemed like the natural progression," says Stuart Collins, who started Bryson Farms with his Shawville partner Terry Stewart 12 years ago. "It's what our grandmothers used to do -- freeze and preserve."
While Bryson Farms has grown a little every year -- they started with an acre of produce in 1998 and now farm more 200 acres -- it took its biggest leap last summer with the investment in three new climate-controlled food storage trailers, plus a fourth for flash-freezing and cooking.
"There's no waste at all now," says Collins. "What we don't sell we store and process."
And, in the depths of winter, the farm is still buzzing with 25 employees, snipping micro greens in the greenhouse, roasting squash that have been stored since summer and cooking up huge vats of heritage roasted tomatoes. Since December, the new frozen products have been available to Bryson's home-delivery customers and at four retail outlets.
"Now we can offer our very own products year round," says Collins. "I don't know of anyone in North America who's doing what we're doing, delivering local, organic frozen foods."
What Can I Buy?
Retail frozen vegetables include bags of frozen corn kernels and broccoli spears, as well as containers of roasted heirloom tomatoes, called Just Tomatoes. But you can also get frozen soups, such as Curried Roasted Squash, Roasted Vegetable, Roasted Heirloom Tomato and vegetable broth. And prepared dishes include Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie, Roasted Vegetable Stew, Heirloom Tomato Marinara Sauce and a Roasted Heirloom Tomato Tart. Bryson's 600 CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) customers can get a few more products that are still in development, such as a savoury squash pie and a squash-and-apple cake, and chefs can buy some of the frozen vegetables in bulk.
Do They Taste Any Good?
The taste is almost beyond belief. I sampled a mouthful of just-cooked frozen corn kernels that were the sweetest I've tasted anywhere, at any time of year. (Collins says it took years of research to find the best organic corn variety and he's keeping the name a secret.) "From the start we knew we wanted to be organic, and we wanted to try heirloom varieties. At first, at the market in Shawville, people looked at us funny with our black tomatoes and golden beets. But we quickly discovered that once they'd tasted them, they came back for more."
What's The Best?
Collins admits that he's partial to the delicious Heirloom Tomato Marinara Sauce, which is made with Bryson's tomatoes, onions, olive oil, spices and garlic. "We worked on it for months and had a lot of advice and help from chefs until we got it right." Collins loves the sauce on pasta, pizza or simply over cooked vegetables.
But at least one local foodie, Kyle Churcher, the butcher at The Piggy Market, says just about anything made with Bryson's roasted heirloom tomatoes is going to be fantastic. "It's the best I've had as far as encapsulating the taste of summer in winter."
Churcher recommends combining the tomatoes with caramelized onions and bacon to make a pasta sauce, or sweating celery and garlic, adding the tomatoes, then blending with cream, to make a special soup. "You could also rehydrate a dried tomato in red wine, then puree it, to drizzle on top of the soup, for a nice colour contrast."
Do The Tomatoes Taste So Good Because Of Added Salt Or Sugar?
No. They truly are just tomatoes. Nothing is added. "They're to take the place of canned tomatoes, but these ones actually have flavour," says Collins. "Anyone can make things taste good with lots of butter and salt. We wanted to make frozen foods that taste great and are very nutritious. Everything we make is low fat and low sodium."
Where Can I Get These Products?
The Piggy Market, in Westboro, carries the frozen corn, broccoli and tomatoes. The Metro store in the Glebe carries all 11 Bryson frozen retail products. Thyme and Again and the Chelsea Smokehouse carry some of the products. Collins says they may expand. "We just don't know how big we're going to grow or how small we're going to stay."
Can I Taste Them Before I Buy?
- . Collins is putting on a taste-testing this Saturday (Jan. 29) at the Metro store in the Glebe (754 Bank St.) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You'll be able to sample the sweet corn, marina sauce, vegetarian shepherd's pie, roasted vegetable stew, heirloom tomato tart, curried squash soup and a new product -- a savoury squash pie.
- . The next Saturday, Feb. 5, he'll be at The Piggy Market (400 Winston Ave., at Richmond Road in Westboro), offering tastes of the corn, broccoli and tomatoes between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
How Much Do The Frozen Foods Cost?
Retail prices range from $5 to $7 for tomatoes, broccoli and corn to about $12 for a shepherd's pie and about $20 for a tomato tart. Regular home-delivery customers (who get a box of vegetables weekly or biweekly) pay less.
Isn't That Surprisingly Affordable Compared To Some Of Bryson's Farms' Prices?
Collins is the first to admit that at $26 a pound, his mixed greens are "very expensive." Prized by Ottawa's top chefs, you get an idea why they're so costly when you visit the farm.
"We're the only ones in the area crazy enough to heat greenhouses year round," says Collins. Then there's the added costs of being organic (they've lost their entire lettuce crop to a virus this winter and are having to substitute other spicy green leaves) and snipping, washing and sorting each leaf by hand. These tender greens are handled with such care, the Pontiac-county women who work at Bryson's Farm even carry them in bins under their jackets when they move them from one building to the next.
But Collins says that they've discovered that they can offer frozen organic foods relatively inexpensively "because we had all the ingredients right here."
"We don't want these to be just for the wealthy. The whole objective is to create a food line that's not as expensive, and is healthy, local and certified organic."