Some of the most beautiful breakfast sweets come fresh from our Canadian farms – marmalade, jam, jellies, maple syrup, edible flowers. You’ll find a particularly delicious array from Tamarack Farms, thanks to the hard work of Nancy and Richard Self, their children, and Tamarack team.
We’re delighted to chat to long-time Vancouverite Nancy Self about her organic creations from this rehabilitated farm in Northumberland County, Ontario.
i. Tell us about the small-batch, edible products you produce.
At Tamarack Farms we look at all the things we can do throughout the year to support our chef clients. Some of our preserves reflect recipes that hold personal importance to us, like the Seville orange marmalade we make in January and February. We use my mother’s recipe – small batch, hand cut. Each batch takes a day to make, and only yields about 12 jars. Our Seville orange marmalade has taken first place at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto in 2017, and a silver award at the World Marmalade Festival in the UK.
Our maple syrup is a rite of spring here, and represents the beginning of the new farm year. It is a social time in the farming community as the days are longer and warmer, but the nights still very cold, so the land is not yet workable. Neighbours visit and help or just bring some lunch and catch up. Our medium maple syrup was honoured with a third place finish at the Royal winter fair in 2018 and a first place finish in 2015.
Our maple syrup is made in a traditional manner – we tap trees by hand and collect the sap in pails in our mixed forest. While this is not as efficient as having a stand of only maples, there is a view that by having the diversity in the forest, this will affect flavour creating a unique terroir.
Modern, production-oriented maple syrup operations typically tap the trees, but then connect them with tubes to a vacuum which draws the sap out of the tree. We rely on nature, with the weather determining how much sap each tree gives up.
We then boil the sap, effectively reducing it from the 3% sugar content it comes out of the tree to about 50% sugar content on our wood fired evaporator in our sugar shack. Again, in production and yield oriented operation, most commercial sugar bushes use a system called reverse osmosis, effectively extracting from 12% to 25% of the water content of the sap before it goes into the evaporator. Our view is this will affect flavour as the sap spends less time in the evaporator.
As the syrup is at about 50% sugar content, as measured by our refractometer, we gradually take it off the evaporator and bring it up to our licenced commercial kitchen to finish, filter and bottle.
We finish the syrup on a propane burner to have greater control so we can finish the syrup at between 67 and 68% sugar or BRIX. The definition of syrup is 66% sugar, but tests have shown that flavour is best at a higher density. Once you take the density up towards 70 BRIX, the syrup becomes quite unstable and can crystallize. From a commercial point of view, by increasing the density, we are lowing our yield, but our chefs are clearly interested in flavour. We do take our last batch of the season up to between 69 and 70 BRIX as our special reserve batch is typically less than 10 litres. The higher density, combined with a view that the last sap of the season has the best flavour and will be the darkest, typically results in remarkable flavour.
We are in the final stages of achieving our organic status for our maple products. While you might say: ‘how could this possibly not be organic,’ what we have come to learn is that the organic certification is more a validation of good forest management and food handling practises. The certification includes provisions to ensure a maximum of 3 taps per tree, and a maximum length of time the taps are in the trees of 6 weeks. It requires diversity in the forest and natural habitats to be maintained. It required a buffer zone between the maple bush and any traditional farming practises that might include the spraying of chemicals. There are also rules regarding food safe practises, the methods of cleaning, and cleaners used, and food grade equipment. All of this is consistent with how we operate our bush, so it seemed logical to gain organic certification as validation.
We think that third party validation such as these awards and our animal welfare certifications are important to our strategy and support our claim to have remarkable products.
ii. What are some particularly delicious ways in which you or others use these products?
Our chefs create beautiful and tasty things hononuring our produce and livestock. The chefs we work with care that the animals had a good life, and our vegetables are grown as you would grow them in your garden at home. They trust us to honour these commitments to them.
We were particularly honoured when the pastry chef and partner at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, Nicole Krasinski, when visiting in Toronto after spending the day with us at the farm, made her signature dessert, Peanut Muscovado Milk, using our maple syrup for a Visa Infinite dinner.
Chef Julie Marteliera, Executive Chef at Lena, uses our Seville orange marmalade as an ingredient in one of her amazing breakfast items in the winter.
All our chefs do remarkable things with our ingredients on a daily basis. It is difficult to single anyone out.
iii. How do you go about choosing what to create and finessing your products?
We do a lot of research on the preserves front, and are constantly experimenting. We read cookbooks and see what is already on the shelves.
An important part of the preserve strategy in the growing season is to reduce food waste. Food waste at the farm level is a big problem generally, and by preserving the excess we can reduce farm food waste.
iv. ‘Remarkable food. Sustainable farming’ is your tagline. What is your overall philosophy behind the food you make?
We grow food we like to eat, in a way that we want to eat it. No chemicals at all. No herbicides, no pesticides. We give our livestock a happy natural long life, and a peaceful end.
We have been very impressed by Daylesford in the UK. They do everything well, and we have had the great pleasure of meeting their farm manager a few times. They have been very forthcoming with ideas, and they are part of a group that has created an online source of practical information based on leading research, called Agricology. When we are thinking it is all too much, I think of Dan Cox, an amazing chef from London (UK) whom we met at his new venture, Crocodon Farm. He is rehabilitating it and opening a restaurant with just one helper. He was even potting his own dishes.
Dan Barbour once said: “you are what you eat eats.” We are maintaining the soil, stewarding the land. Considering carefully what we grow and feed our livestock.
v. What took you from a Vancouver-rooted life in business to life on a farm in Ontario?
Funnily enough, I don’t think it is such a stretch. While farming is very new, thinking about food, and the businesses of food is what my career always had some connection to. Ironically, in Vancouver while I tried very hard, I was not a particularly successful gardener. I guess that is one of the things that has made this work – we are both hard workers. Our previous careers were things we built, and the farm business is that again. It’s the idea of figuring out if there is a viable business model for someone to raise livestock the way we do, and grow food the way we do. I hope there is, but we have the luxury because we had careers before, to have the farm not be the sole way we put food on the table.
My family is a third generation Vancouver family, yet we were brought up to seize adventures and follow them. My dad used to say: “people live in different places for different reasons, so place is not the most important decision, the “why” is.” Our kids have embraced this philosophy as well – but we still have connections to BC: a cabin in Haida Gwaii, and a bolt hole at Whistler.
We ended up in this area after a trip to a farm in this area to visit friends we knew from Vancouver. We bought 250 acres of land that had been fallow for over 50 years as a passive investment 2 months later. Then we decided to move to the farm and be gentleman farmers – but we quickly figured out that the type of large scale farming typically done in these situations was not something we were comfortable with. Then, we started a vegetable garden for ourselves, and I decided that to make the social experiment complete, I should do a farmer’s market.
vi. What has been most surprising – for better and for worse – in this new lifestyle?
That I like it, and that things grow. I love learning new things every day. Typically, when you are young and starting your career you are being challenged like this – to always be learning. It is a luxury to be challenged like this at 60.
Most importantly, I now ask a lot more questions when someone tells me about their food. When they say organic: do they grow heirlooms or hybrids? What sprays or chemicals do they use? Many organic sprays are in fact poisonous, and farms can use non-organic sprays if they have problems in the field that the organic solutions are not fixing.
I ask: what do they feed their livestock? How are they housed? Animal welfare certification is free, so what have they not done it?
We experiment a lot in the garden, and some things work and others don’t. Sometimes, it is tempting to think that this project is a little too big – we are supposed to be retired….There is never a question about what to do each day, but my piano playing and tennis playing have suffered.
vii. Can you tell us some of the greatest challenges in producing these small-batch products?
Overall the challenges are like anything. We are trying to produce a very delicious product with an umbrella of values we will not compromise on with regard to stewardship of the land and the treatment of our animals. Not surprisingly however, these principles do seem to result in the tastiest products.
viii. You’ve already won awards for your maple syrup at the 2018 Royal Fair. What was that like and what are some other sources of pride for you at Tamarack?
Honestly, for some strange reason I take great pride in our rather elaborate ribbons from the Royal Winter Fair, and the awards from the World Marmalade Festival. I guess because, as a farmer, you tend to work on your own a lot, so a little encouragement from the outside world is very encouraging.
Every time a chef tells us about what they have created using our livestock or produce, we feel a great sense of pride. Sometimes a chef will send us a picture, or post on Instagram what they have made with our produce. Extremely cool. Every once in a while, we will go to one of our chef’s restaurants, and they will cook for us, highlighting what we supply them with.
ix. Can you tell us some key pieces of advice you would offer to other creators who want to grow and produce their own edible products?
Read and research. Listen to all the advice you are given and then think about what you want to accomplish. Find the best practises. For what we do, we think that is in the UK, and we have worked hard to learn from what they do there. With the internet, the world is a very small place.
x. Anything to add?
A few chefs we work with :
Anthony Walsh. Corporate Executive chef Oliver + Bonacini
John Horne Executive Chef Canoe, Biff, Liberty Commons Auberge de Pommier
Lynn Crawford, Ruby Watchco
Jeff Kang, Canis and Apres Wine Bar (Jeff is from BC)
Ron McKinley chef de cuisine at Canoe (also from BC)
Header: Oscar + Buckley @ Tamarack Farms
Photos: Courtesy of Nancy Self