We were looking for any corn that would grow at altitude in the cold, dry Rockies. Roy’s Calais is a Northeast flint. We took a chance on one of its varieties, Abenaki Calais. It hit the mark; taste and nutrition were unexpected benefits. Here’s the nutshell story of its resilience and taste.
The Northern Flints’ ancestors came from Guatemala, Mexico, or the U.S. Southwest around 1000 CE. to the Woodland peoples of what is now the Eastern U.S. and Canada, who selected for early ripening and cold soil germination.
This was one of the few varieties that was said to have reliably produced a crop in the horrible summer of 1816, the famous “year without a summer.”
Many New England “eight row flints” like this one disappeared as modern hybrid dents took over. In 1996 Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds in Vermont rescued the last of this variety, naming it after farmer Roy Fair who had nurtured it in the 1930s in Calais, Vermont.
High Mowing Seeds’ Brigit Derel notes that Montana corn breeder “Dave Christensen says Roy’s is the second earliest corn variety he has ever grown out of hundreds. His multi-strain painted mountain corn is first and has a little Roy’s blood in it.”
Stearns asked Vermont farmer Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farms to grow it for seed production. Lazor selected for stronger brace roots and started growing it for the Maine co-op, Fedco Seeds. Maine growers then took over and crossed Roy’s Calais with another New England flint, Garland, which Lazor favors. Fedco sells this as Abenaki Calais to “recognize and appreciate the native seed keepers of the past whose varieties…continue to sustain us here on Turtle Island.” Fedco pays royalties for these to a Wabanaki Project in Maine.
At some point Roy’s Calais boarded the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Oregon writes in Beautiful Corn : Roy’s Calais “is more a library of traits found in the Northern Flint landrace at large than a simple, well-defined commercial variety…a good base for developing a flint variety tailored to a grower’s needs.”
Boutard selects for the usual eight-row ears and against the variant, fatter, ten to twelve-rows, which are more work to shell by hand, warm up later, and mature later. the red kernels, as they tend to germinate and emerge up to a week or two earlier than the yellow ones. Next they select for the deep, rich yellow kernels, which ripen before the light yellows. They don’t save ears with light yellow kernels, due to poor pollination and aphids.
Carol Deppe bred Cascade Ruby-Gold Flint Corn, she writes, “by crossing Roy’s Calais (aka Abenaki) with Byron flint and selecting from there. Compared with Roy’s Calais, CRG has more ear colors…The red shades make a rich-flavored cornbread; the yellow shades make a mild-flavored cornbread. Both make great polenta and jonny cakes.
Although bred primarily to be gourmet-quality food… I bred this corn to be the ultimate survival crop, the variety and crop you would choose if you could have only one… to get you through good times and bad.”
Farmer Alice Starek of Golden Hoof Farm in Boulder, CO says, “it’s tall, vigorous, productive- tastes great, too… each color has such distinctive flavors.”
What’s Your Experience with Roy’s Calais or its offspring? I’m all ears.
Pamela Sherman trials corn with her husband, Steve, at 8300′ in the Rocky Mountains. They are with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) as grain trialers, seed stewards, and she is a seed teacher trained by RMSA. She serves on the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste Committee for the Rocky Mountain/Southwest Region. She can be found online on the RMSA Facebook pages.
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