The honey that Alex Cruz was holding was not ordinary honey. "It's very sexual," he said, apologizing almost, as he unscrewed the lid from a one-kilogram jar and dipped in a finger. While nearly all the honey produced in North America comes from bees that gather simple flower nectar, this stuff had begun in the digestive tracts of common aphids, which suck the sap from the linden trees that grow in Southwestern Quebec's Hautes-Laurentides mountains, Cruz explained.
The aphids had eaten the sap, and then armies of sugar-crazed ants had "milked" the aphids. That "milk," a sweet, sappy liquid called honeydew that ends up on leaves and branches, is irresistible to bees; an apiarist Cruz works with had hung his hives high up off the ground, deep in the forest. The gambit worked. A shipment of nearly 1,900 jars – the entire crop – had just arrived in Montreal.
The flavour was dark and clean and complex, like butterscotch and candied lemon and a hundred other tastes. Even better, it was incredibly rare: Cruz hasn't been able to find another North American apiarist who produces it.
The 29-year-old, a partner in the Montreal-based rare foods company called Société-Orignal (it translates to "Moose Society"), had just received an order from New York for 30 cases. Though they wholesale it for $21 a jar, the honey would retail for as much as $75 a pop.
The 12-month-old company's list of culinary oddities includes intensely concentrated "grand cru" syrup that's derived from small lots of century maples; wild Labrador flowers; cured, intensely maritime sea urchin paste, of a sort, called bottarga; wild field mustard seed (the chef Paul Liebrandt, of Corton, in Manhattan, ordered 20 kilograms of it); and wax-sealed bottles of the cold-pressed oil of camelina, a brassica that's common in Central Asia but is enough of an oddity here that it took Health Canada until 2010 to approve it for human consumption. What the products have in common is that they all come with an incredible story, and they're rapidly helping to redraw the country's culinary map.
Société-Orignal's customer base includes many, if not most, of the top chefs and restaurants in the Canada and the United States. Canoe, Hawksworth, Buca, Rouge, Toqué, Joe Beef, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Del Posto, Daniel and The Gramercy Tavern are all among the company's 150-plus clients.
Yet the most interesting thing about the venture is how promising its model is for the future of small but innovative family farms. Rather than peddling the usual commodity products, or the typical farmers' market offerings, Société-Orignal focuses on unique, unknown and under-appreciated foods, and then finds them high-value markets. The appetite for this sort of product, the company is discovering, is limitless so far.
Cruz, along with his business partner, Cyril Gonzales, began planning Société-Orignal two years ago, and made their first sales last October. Both of them come from the restaurant business: Cruz was the sommelier and managing partner at DNA, a critically lauded Montreal restaurant (it closed this summer); Gonzales worked as a server there while completing an accounting degree.
Cruz was fascinated with the potential of boreal agriculture, and with how many great foods are overlooked, abandoned or grossly underestimated because they aren't compatible with high-yield farming and high-volume retailing. He expected they would work as a mediator, mostly: Société-Orignal could connect small producers with enough deep-pocketed clients to keep them afloat. He wrote a manifesto (it's intelligent, if earnest) and promised himself that he and Gonzales would never get too big or too busy to visit the producers they work with.
On a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, Cruz dropped in on one of the producer families in Howick, an hour's drive southwest of Montreal. The farmers, a young couple named Pascale St.-Amour and Jocelyn Massé, work organically and with limited machinery. They grow many of Société-Orignal's experiments, like celtuse, a stem lettuce that Cruz said tastes like broccoli but has the texture of cucumber, and 350 gangly, sprawling, spike-ridden bushes called lychee tomatoes, which you wouldn't dare harvest without extra-thick gloves and a couple of shots of booze.
The fruit they bore were the size of cherry tomatoes and tasted mild and refreshing, like sour cherries crisped in tomato water. The bushes looked as though they had a few hundred pounds of fruit on them. I wondered how Cruz would sell a highly perishable, spike-stemmed fruit that nobody had ever heard of.
"Are you kidding? You say the words 'lychee tomato' and chefs will buy the whole crop. It's not complicated," Cruz said. Five restaurants in Montreal, including Maison Boulud, Les 400 Coups and Kitchenette, as well as Momofuku Daisho, in Toronto, bought out their first harvest, he later said.
That same farm's experience with red peppers shows the value of a novel product. Last fall, rather than selling their intensely flavourful hot peppers at market, St.-Amour and Massé took Cruz's suggestion to manually halve, seed, dehydrate and then grind them into coarse pepper flakes. It was a busy job, especially coming as it did in the middle of harvest season. They grew 160 kilograms of the peppers, yielding 35 kilos of finished flakes, which Cruz packaged into 65-gram jars and sold at $25 each.
The couple netted $6,000 for their efforts. Next year, they hope to grow enough to yield $34,000, or nearly a third of the farm's receipts, St.-Amour said. It will take roughly the same amount of space as $5,000 in other vegetables.
Cruz wants them to do a yellow paprika next, to always be ahead of the competition. And anyway, he added, it takes handwork, experience and patience. "If the big companies want to, let them try and make red pepper flakes," he said.
This fall, after working out of a coffee shop, and using an $85-per-month storage locker as its warehouse, the company plans to move into a space in Maison Publique, the new restaurant by the chef Derek Dammann, Cruz's former partner at DNA. They're equipping the new facility with an R&D area. They've also hired a manager to help move their products into small retail channels.
They're constantly planning new products: a novel type of flour, all-but-extinct corn varieties derived from Agriculture Canada's heritage seed bank. This month, after more than a year of perfecting their sea urchin bottarga, they've got an order in for 2,500 pounds of fresh urchin, which they plan to process at an underused plant in Portneuf-sur-Mer, on the St. Lawrence river. (Expect to see it on menus at better Italian places by late spring.)
Cruz hopes the urchin project might mean big things not just for his company but for the town around that packing plant. "Imagine if we can get China or Japan excited about this product," he said.
"So little of this country has been explored."