This Prairie Pleasure Deserves to be Enjoyed in Ottawa
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 24,2004

Living in London during the seventies, I yearned for a nostalgic taste of the Prairies – blueberry or, better still, saskatoon pie often came to mind. Now that I live in Ottawa, that ostensible repository of all things Canadian, blueberries are plentiful but still - no saskatoons. In fact, it looks as if the British will enjoy the purplish-blue wonder before Ottawans.

Saskatoons, the ubiquitous fruit that resembles a blue berry but actually belongs to the apple family, were recently removed from Britain’s store shelves to undergo safety evaluation under new European Union food rules. Faced with an interminably long processing period, Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Mark Wartman threatened to dump English Breakfast tea, steak-and-kidney pie and even HP Sauce in Regina’s Wascana Harbour. “We’re not going to take this lying down!” he warned.

But this week, on the brink of a bumper harvest, the news is good for Canada’s latest entry into international, if not national, markets.

“Things are working out better than anticipated,” says John Ritz of Prairie Lane Saskatoons Inc.

Hosting an International Trade Commission this week at his 5 acre facility near Petersfield, Manitoba, Ritz guided some 200 brokers and buyers from 10 countries through his state-of-the-art processing operation where saskatoons are blast frozen within an hour of harvesting.

The first to export his and the berries of 80 other farmers and the first to feel the adverse effects of European Union rulings, Ritz now expects a positive result. “It all happened at the World Meat Congress in Winnipeg,” he says. “EU Commissioner Franz Fischler came to talk steaks, chops and ribs but the winner was saskatoons!”

No surprise there. The legendary Prairie berry has been winning for some time.

The tough, well adapted Amelanchier (“small apple”) alnifolia NUTT., Rosacea, thrives in a short summer of hot days and cool nights and withstands long cold winters. Sometimes known as the service berry or juneberry, it is a western North American species that grows from Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories through California, Arizona and New Mexico.

In 1810, the great map maker and surveyor, David Thompson, recorded how “On the great Plains there is a shrub bearing a very sweet berry of a dark blue color, much sought after, great quantities are dried by the Natives … and as much as possible mixed to make pemmican … it (is) the staple food of all persons, and affords the most nourishment in the least space and weight … it ought to be cultivated in Canada, and in England.”

And in 1882, Saskatoon - an English adaptation of the Cree word ‘mis-sask-quah-too-min’ meaning “tree with much wood” – became the adopted name of a new temperance colony on the banks of the South Saskatchewan river smack in the middle of the Canadian Prairies.

Indeed, it was on the Canadian Prairies where saskatoons, clustered on shrubs as high as 12 feet, were destined to become a traditional food. Here, mid July excursions deep into mosquito infested bush with empty paint cans and plastic washtubs would become an annual ritual for countless households. Served fresh with farm cream and sugar or made into pies, saskatoons also lasted well into the winter months as jams, jellies, syrup or preserves.

Almost two centuries later, David Thompson’s recommendation to cultivate the plant is underway. Commercially produced since the sixties, mostly as U-pick and farmers’ market operations, some 5-6 million kilograms of saskatoons are now produced annually in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. As a delicacy in the highest reaches of Canada’s culinary industry, they are served to royalty and other dignitaries.

But nostalgia for a flavour and a way of life is only part of the reason for their latest success.

With blueberries blazing a trail in the hot antioxidant market, saskatoons are a ready match in nutrients, fibre and flavonoids – a proven fighter of the free radical damage that causes degenerative diseases in humans. This, in the last few years, has helped open markets in Ireland, Japan, the United States and Britain.

Given their distinguished pedigree, why are saskatoons absent from Ottawa produce counters?

Assuming the burden of the nation’s great saskatoon divide, John Ritz confesses. “Because of Ontario’s strong allegiance to blueberries, my business plan has focused on other markets,” he says.

If eastern Canada never felt alienated, it can start now.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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