On a recent visit to the province of Quebec, I was quite inspired to see many strong examples of support for sustainable local agriculture. In Quebec City (where it is illegal to use pesticides), I took a tour of the Château Frontenac, the City’s most prominent landmark. I was surprised to learn that this famous hotel has had an impressive rooftop garden in place for 18 years, growing basil, oregano, parsley, chives, and an assortment of other herbs for use in the Château’s four restaurants.
As our tour guide, Josephine, pointed out the rooftop herbs, we were amazed to see chicken coops and an apiary for raising bees as well. “That is all the work of our head chef, Jean Soulard,” she explained. “When he moved to Quebec from France 18 years ago to become Head Chef at the Château he was already a supporter of local foods and local farmers. Here he’s just taken this to a new level.”
She further explained that the apiary holds the 300,000 bees that produce 300 pounds of honey each year, which is all used in the Château’s recipes. Another important role Chef Soulard has played in supporting local sustainable agriculture has been to build relationships with local suppliers and farmers. “That took a lot of time, and wasn’t something that could be done quickly,” she shared. “Chef Soulard needed several years to build relationships with farmers, many affiliated with a farmers’ association called the ‘Union des Producteurs Agricoles du Québec,’” said Josephine. Over time, Chef Soulard has even expanded local markets through dialogue with Quebec’s farmers about the foods he needs for his restaurants and what local farmers might grow for him.
Chef Soulard, who is like a rock star in Quebec because of his hosting popular food shows on Canadian TV, has had a great impact in building awareness of the importance of local foods to health and the local economy. With 300 meals served each day in the Château Frontenac’s restaurants, Chef Soulard has played a vital role in supporting local, sustainable agriculture through his purchasing decisions and by working with local farmers.
Just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, the beautiful Ile d’Orléans offered another window into the farm-to-table movement in the Quebec countryside. This island, known for its agro-tourism, offered many local products for sale at farmstands and small shops: cheeses, organic berries (including wonderful fall strawberries), maple syrup products, and breads made from local ingredients. Of special interest was a visit to “Au Goût d’Autrefois” (A Taste from the Past), a farm-to-table restaurant run by Jacques Legros, a sustainable foods advocate, grower, and chef. For Jacques, running a farm-to-table restaurant was consistent with his ethics and his passion for environmental justice. An Amer-Indian, Jacques was particularly aware of native recipes and planting techniques handed down by his ancestors. He was especially proud that 90 percent of the ingredients served in his restaurant were organic and local, many being grown in a huge garden on his restaurant property. This emphasis on local and organic ingredients has earned a special designation from the province of Quebec, which has certifed his restaurant as one which consistently uses local ingredients–a plus for those interested in dining at restaurants that operate sustainably. In addition, Jacques raises all the poultry served in his restaurant on grounds adjacent to his garden. In order to ensure the well-being of the birds, Au Goût d’Autrefois allows its poultry to live in semi-freedom and does not feed them any chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or medications. The birds are fed four kinds of grain–wheat, barley, oats, and corn–and are fed about five times as much feed as poultry receive on commercial farms.
As I enjoyed a several-course dinner that included fall vegetables (like leeks, Brussels sprouts, squashes, and carrots), plus delicious recipes with goose, duck, and turkey, Jacques explained how each course was prepared and the care that went into each dish. The only sweeteners used were maple syrup and apple cider from the island; Omega-3 rich poultry fat took the place of butter and shortenings. “I have a cycle to my work, and that involves three days of serving meals at my restaurant, and the rest of the week working on my garden and caring for poultry,” said Jacques. “This means what I share with you is holistic, and worked on with my own hands and the labor of those right here on the island.”
It was a pleasure to learn of these farm-to-table examples across the border in Canada, which offer much food for thought for those of us passionate about sustainable agriculture in the U.S.