Canada's first saffron farm expecting excellent crop

Canada's first farm dedicated to growing the spice that's worth more than its weight in gold is getting ready for a bumper crop — and it will still come in at just over a pound.

'The bulbs went to sleep in France and woke up in Quebec'

Pur Safran co-owner Nathalie Denault prepares the sandy flower beds where the saffron crocuses will blossom in October. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Canada's first farm dedicated to growing saffron, the spice that's worth more than its weight in gold, is getting ready to harvest its first bumper crop.

But even that will weigh about the same as a pound of butter. 

Pur Safran, located in the small Quebec village of St-Elie-de-Caxton, expects to harvest 450 to 500 grams of the precious spice before the end of October.

"We would like for Quebec to become self-sufficient in saffron production, because we can do it,"  said Pur Safran co-owner Nathalie Denault, who not only produces the spice, but teaches other potential growers the ropes.

Saffron comes from the reddish-orange stigmas of a particular crocus flower and is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world. 

Denault and farm co-owner André Laplante travelled to France to learn how to grow it and came back to Quebec to run a series of tests.

Once they were sure they could start production in Canada, they set out to find the perfect patch of land.

Of the 50,000 bulbs imported from France, only three didn't survive last winter's record-breaking cold temperatures.

Denault says the saffron flower can be burned by the cold, so needs a thick snow cover to thrive.  

The flower's biological clock works opposite to that of most crops.

The bulbs sprout in the fall, bloom into a fragrant purple flower which only lasts 24 to 48 hours, then reproduces by splitting into more bulbs under the snow. The plant's dormant phase is in the summer.

Pur Safran is expecting its first real saffron harvest this fall. Only three of the 50,000 bulbs planted last year did not survive their first Quebec winter. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Finding a 'magical' spot to grow

Denault and Laplante picked St-Elie-de-Caxton to build their farm not only because the growing and soil condition were ideal, but also because of the tourists.

 In the past seven years, the town has developed a tourism industry based on the fantastical stories of Quebecois storyteller Fred Pellerin.

"St-Elie is magical for so many different things, and we needed a place where magic would work, and it is working," Denault said.

Pur Safran offers tasting, information about the spice as well as sells homemade products to tourists who stop by the farm.

Once the harvest is over, they'll also sell dried saffron.  Last year's stock has already run out.

They only harvested about 75 grams last year, but Denault said that was expected.

"The bulbs went to sleep in France and woke up in Quebec," she said. "They needed to adapt."

Denault estimates there are 60 kilograms of international saffron sold in Quebec each year, but it's difficult to get an accurate number.

Because of saffron's significant value, fraudsters alter the spice to up the weight. The end result is often spice of much poorer quality.

The Pur Safran farm is open to visitors. Nathalie Denault explains to French tourists Isabelle and Thierry Ardurat how the most expensive spice in the world is harvested. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Expanding the industry, one grower at a time

Pur Safran is also planting the idea of saffron in the heads of other farmers.

Last summer, they taught three other couples how to start their own farm, each graduating with 3,000 of their own bulbs. 

Despite training what will be their own competition, Denault says she's not worried about business spreading thin.

"Every producer of saffron produces little quantities, so we will never, ever, no matter how many producers we are, we'll never make enough saffron for the demand."  

About the Author

Marika Wheeler

CBC Quebec's travelling journalist

Based in Quebec City, Marika travels across the province telling the stories of people who live and work in la belle province for CBC Radio One and