By RICHARD VIGNOLA
After a wonderful winter of quiet days interspersed with some energetic cross-country skiing, I decided to take a trip out east to the province of Québec for a family visit. After arriving in Montréal, my journey took me to Trois Rivières, a beautiful and historically-significant city with a population of 125,000, situated on the St. Lawrence River at the confluence of the St. Maurice River between Montréal and Québec City.
Mixing a little business with pleasure while in Trois-Rivières, I took a side trip across the St. Lawrence and about 50 kilometres east towards Québec City to the small community of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. This is the home of Fruit d’Or (roughly translated as “Golden Fruit”), our supplier of dried cranberries and blueberries.
We discovered Fruit d’Or about three years ago after searching for organically grown and processed cranberries. Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes is situated at the centre of the province of Québec’s cranberry and blueberry production region. Over the last 20 years, the province of Québec has become one of the fastest-growing production areas for cranberries in the world. This area of Québec offers perfect growing conditions for cranberries and blueberries, including appropriate weather and soil conditions, and the availability of abundant fresh water.
It’s late April, and despite a day of dry weather yesterday in Trois-Rivières, today is rainy and windy. As I drive along the country roads towards my destination, heavy rain is flooding already sodden fields. When I arrive at Fruit d’Or the rain is falling in sheets; I gratefully find a parking spot near the entrance to the office where I am welcomed by Sylvain Dufour, one of Fruit d’Or’s partners and vice-president of sales and marketing.
The fruit is then lifted onto a conveyor belt where it is hand-sorted by workers stationed on each side of the conveyor. Only the ripest and most colourful fruit is allowed to continue on to the next phase. After this final sorting the cranberries are mechanically sliced into halves (whole cranberries skip this process).
Depending on the customer’s order, cranberries and blueberries are placed into an infusing vat where they will absorb the specified sweetener. Depending on the customer’s specifications, cranberries or blueberries can be sweetened with either organic maple syrup, organic apple juice concentrate, organic cane sugar or regular cane sugar. By contrast, most commercial dried cranberries have their natural juice pressed out for sale to other processors. They are then boiled in refined sugar solutions, resulting in the very poor dried cranberries often seen on the market today. Fruit d’Or’s cranberries and blueberries emerge from the infusion bath and are then placed into large dryers at temperatures between 20-50°F, where extra moisture will be removed. Finally, the dried berries are cooled and sprayed with a very fine mist of sunflower oil (to keep them from sticking) and packaged for shipping. Fruit d’Or’s dried cranberries and blueberries are always processed just before shipping, guaranteeing optimum freshness, flavour and quality.
His goal was to develop processed products that would be completely natural. These early efforts provided key factors that distinguished his products from other dried cranberries and blueberries. In 1999, Mario Carrier joined forces with Martin Le Moine, one of the first organic cranberry growers in the province of Québec. The combined experience and expertise of these two partners resulted in the unsurpassed flavour and quality of the dried cranberries and blueberries Fruit d’Or sells today. In 2000, the two original partners took on two additional partners: Denis Bédard, one of the largest cranberry growers in Canada, and my host Sylvain Dufour, an expert in agricultural product development.
The incomparable quality of Fruit d’Or products has quickly made them a favourite with Rancho Vignola’s staff and customers. This fall we are planning to add whole dried cranberries (in addition to the “halves” we currently carry), both sweetened and unsweetened, as well as an organic orange-flavoured cranberry, to our product line-up.
Since my visit to Fruit d’Or in May, the company has received many awards, among them the Biofood Award of Excellence from Québec’s Agriculture, Fishery and Food Ministry. Canadian business magazine Profit ranked the company third among one hundred of Canada's fastest-growing companies. Today Fruit d’Or is the top North American processor of organic cranberries, which represent 30% of its total sales. L’Actualitée magazine ranked the company first among Québec’s business growth leaders. Fruit d’Or has many employees, annual sales in excess of 20 million dollars, and exports to over 20 countries just six years after its humble start in 1999.