By Heather Killen
A new Annapolis County based business is coasting along with lavender.
Based in Bear River, Sledding Hill farm produces quality and uncommon foods, ranging from fresh local produce to unusual lavender flavoured jellies and condiments.
Gordon Tingley and Martin McGurk bought the more-than 40-acre Riverview Road property in 2009, and relocated here from Vancouver. Both foodies and avid gardeners, the pair dreamed of creating a lifestyle where they would live to work, rather than work to live.
Living on the west coast in a basement level condo, McGurk said the orchids were crowded on the windowsills and in fierce competition for the light. Buying a modest piece of land and building a greenhouse was a wild dream there given the prime real estate market.
Relocating to the east coast has made it possible to start this business and while there’s always something to plant, prune, pick, or pickle, there always seems to be plenty of hands to help and answers often arrive before they ask the questions.
“In Vancouver we were too busy working to be able to do this,” said McGurk. “We wouldn’t have had time to play around in the kitchen with the lavender.”
Neighbours have been welcoming, supportive, and instrumental in helping the business get established and growing. The Department of Agriculture and Taste of Nova Scotia have also been great supporters, according to Tingley.
When they purchased the property, they initially imagined growing grapes. After doing a bit more research they decided lavender would be ideal for the climate here. It’s a low-cost, deer resistant plant that is versatile enough for both cosmetic and culinary uses.
They also thought that it could be a relatively unique venture that could play a role in the budding agrotourism industry of the Valley. They started with 240 plants last year and have ordered another 800 to be planted this season.
While the first plants have survived the winter they haven’t matured yet to produce a yield, so Tingley and McGurk have been buying their lavender buds from Seafoam Lavender, another Nova Scotia-based producer.
While lavender is best known here for its cosmetic and aromatherapy uses, it also offers a savory and unexpected flavour to food. Lavender jelly is the perfect compliment to lamb and roast pork dishes, while lavender baking sugar adds an exotic flair to traditional cornbread, shortbread, and sugar cookie recipes.
Lavender syrup can be diluted in tea, drinks, and juices; drizzled over berries, custards, ice cream, and cheesecakes; the possibilities are only limited by the imagination.
The trick to cooking with lavender is finding its perfect balance, according to McGurk. Use too much and the result will be bitter and soapy, cook too long and the flavour is flat and the lavender loses its brilliant colour.
Converting their tried-and-true recipes to produce large enough batches has also proved a challenge. New combinations of ingredients and chemistry don’t always gel the first time, so Tingley and McGurk have learned to improvise.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” McGurk said. “And a lot of chemistry learned.”
They’ve finally pinned down the right combination of timing and chemistry to produce a shelf-stable and delicious line of lavender jelly, syrup, baking sugar, and pepper that take away the guesswork for even experienced cooks.
“The use of lavender in cooking is a growing trend, but it can be a challenge to work with,” added Gordon Tingley. “We’ve created condiments that remove much of the time and guesswork involved in getting just the right amount.”
They’re also experimenting with other types of products and have a small bee colony, a greenhouse, and will eventually develop an experimental orchard with a variety of fruits and berries.
Late last summer they successfully introduced their first batch of lavender-flavoured products at the Bear River Farmers’ and Artists’ Market. Recently they shipped their growing product line to retailers in Digby and Truro and hope to further expand distribution to reach the Halifax market.
“We love to be adventurous with food,” says McGurk. “We’re excited to be able to introduce some of our discoveries to a wider audience now.”
Recipes using Sledding Hill’s lavender products to make desserts, cocktails, and salad dressings are included on their web site: http://sleddinghill.ca. In addition to area retailers, Sledding Hill products can be purchased and shipped anywhere in Canada via their online store. Locally the products are available at the Trilocal Market in Digby.