Savour the Flavour

Zesty herb favourite in Atlantic Canada

The distinctive flavour of summer savory is an Atlantic Canadian tradition for many families, but for Kevin Ryan, the popular herb is a family tradition in more ways than one.

Bona Vista Summer Savory, located in South Pinette, PEI, is a small operation run by Ryan and his family–wife Marcella, and children Seamus, 8, and Emmylou, 6–tending the crop each year.

“This past fall, (Seamus and Emmylou) were helping the best they could with the weeding and the harvesting,” Ryan said.

Summer savory is a very popular ingredient in turkey stuffing for Christmas dinner, and other foods such as stews and soups. In Ryan’s case, he remembers summer savory being an “essential” ingredient in his mother’s fish cakes.

This flavourful ingredient has been part of the Ryan family for decades, as far back as the late 1970s in Newfoundland, when Ryan’s father Patrick started growing summer savory alongside other crops such as parsnips and carrots. “We moved here because of the PEI soil,” Ryan said. In the early 1980s, the Ryans moved to eastern PEI, residing in Flat River for a while before settling for good in South Pinette.

Ryan helped his dad with the tending and harvesting of the crops, especially the summer savory. And it remained so until 2001, when his father died after a brief illness.

At the time, Ryan was leading a busy life living in Calgary for much of the year making his living as a musician, so he didn’t have time to tend to many of the family’s crops. But summer savory’s growing season, which runs from late spring to early fall, worked well with his lifestyle. And there was that personal connection.

“[Growing the summer savory] is something my dad and I shared more of a passion for,” he said. “My mother agreed to me continuing the savory.”

Summer savory is indeed a very popular item in Atlantic Canadian kitchens; something we can call our own, as most people in the rest of the country use sage or other spices. Chef Ilona Daniels describes the summer savory’s unique flavour as having “notes of citrus zest, the muskiness of the forest floor, and the nuances of mint and thyme.”

Chef Ilona says it’s believed that summer savory was introduced to the region with the arrival of the English and Scottish, but its influence reaches as far back as ancient Rome, where it was used as both a flavouring agent and for medicinal purposes.

For most people these days, the aroma of summer savory “screams” celebration, holidays and family, Chef Ilona said. “There is a robustness to the herb’s fragrance which is intoxicating in a way which is different from the pine tree-like intensity of rosemary or sage which are common substitutes for turkey stuffing outside of Atlantic Canada.”

Ryan has had much success with his product. He supplies savory to restaurants and retail stores in both PEI and Newfoundland and at one point, some larger distributors handled his product. At his peak, he recalled one year when he grew up to six acres of summer savory.

photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Business has slowed in recent years due to Ryan embarking on a new career as a registered nurse. With the heavy course load and starting a new family, it became a challenge to keep up with the demand for his product. Ryan had to give up supplying the larger distributors, and even had to turn down an offer from Costco.

“We decided to concentrate on smaller markets and make sure (the savory) is the highest quality possible,” he said.

Ryan currently works at the Emergency Department at the Kings County Memorial Hospital, but still produces between one and two acres of summer savory annually. His spices can still be found in various locations such as Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown, Cooper’s Red & White in Eldon, and Mike’s Queen Street Meat Market. Ryan also hopes to restart his mail-order service, which was especially popular among Atlantic Canadian expatriates with a craving for the flavours of home. He said he had to stop mail-order due to increased postage costs and increased security regulations following the 9/11 attacks.

Beyond Atlantic Canada, summer savory is not well-known Ryan noted. “But we export [to] Atlantic Canadians all over the country, the continent, and the world; and [to] who would want to use it for Christmas dinner [and other things] but they find it hard to acquire.”

Ryan is hopeful he’ll be able to pass his passion for summer savory on to his two children.

“It’s in my blood. It’s a tradition my father started, and I feel a connection to him when I grow and produce it.” David MacDonald