THE UTTERLY SUBLIME ASPARAGUS!
Nicole St-Jean and Simon Lavallée, farmer-owners, with help from their children Mathilde and Eudes, who will eventually take over the business.
Green asparagus. Specifically, 120,000 pounds of asparagus, which after being cut, arranged and cleaned, ends up weighing only 80,000 pounds (that’s 40 tons!). For six weeks (the average length of the season), the two owners, two of their children and about 15 employees from abroad (Quebecers are increasingly turning away from the farming trades) work hard to ensure that we can enjoy a fresh product of outstanding quality.
Many of Quebec’s leading chefs are quick to say that this family farm, located in Saint-Aimé, a tiny village between Sorel and Saint-Hyacinthe, produces “Quebec’s best asparagus.” It’s not only chefs. “Starting in early May, many customers stop by the farm to find out ‘if it’s coming,” says Nicole St-Jean. “They can’t wait! This year, the wait was much longer than expected. We had never seen this before. But that’s farming. We’re at the mercy of the weather. And it’s even more delicate for asparagus. Now it’s here, and that’s what counts!”
When the harvest begins, in addition to her work on the farm, Nicole fills her truck twice a week and drives to Montreal to deliver her asparagus, facing orange cones and heavy traffic to reach 45 destinations a day. “A producer who delivers directly to restaurants is very rare. But I know Montreal well and can easily find my way around.” She finds it very important to maintain this direct relationship with chefs. “You know, the profit margins in vegetable growing are quite low. When I arrive in restaurant kitchens and the employees are so happy that I’m finally bringing them my asparagus, for me it’s a satisfaction that’s worth much more than money. It recharges our batteries and makes us want to keep going! I feel the same happiness when I welcome people on the farm during the season. They come to see us in Saint-Aimé, which is very far off the main roads. It’s really awesome.” Nicole loves explaining to her visitors what it’s like to grow this vegetable before it reaches their plate.
“Pitchounettes” (thin asparagus), “demoiselles” (medium asparagus) and “bourgeoises” (thick asparagus) are picked and cut by hand. Fresh and tasty, they are also very sweet because they are grown in a soil rich in organic matter, not in sand as is the case with many producers. In addition, they are not fibrous, so they are even delicious when eaten raw. In short, we are a long way from the mushy canned asparagus that our parents used to want us to eat. Those days are over. Long unknown in Quebec, fresh asparagus has now become part of our eating habits.
Although Nicole St-Jean and Simon Lavallée have always loved the countryside, they never imagined they would become asparagus growers. By a strange coincidence, they embarked on this adventure because… they loved the asparagus grown by their neighbour at the end of their road. Nicole has a master’s degree in art history and worked for many years in film as a set designer, and in an entertainment broadcasting company she founded with a film producer well-known in Quebec. “But it was complicated with the children. Film shoots lasted for months. I no longer wanted schedules like that.” As for Simon, he has always worked as a physical education teacher.
Each year, Nicole and Simon waited impatiently for their neighbour’s asparagus to be ready. “It had become a ritual… She had told us about starting out, in particular that the agronomist she consulted about asparagus growing had explained that she did not have ‘the right soil.’ Ignoring his advice, she planted seeds… and the results were spectacular! Being her neighbours, we had the same soil as her… So when she said she wanted to stop farming, we bought her equipment and started preparing our land for asparagus. We began with five acres, and ended up with 15 acres. It takes five years to start growing asparagus, which is a perennial plant. You can start harvesting a few plants in the third year, gradually also in the fourth year, and in the fifth year you can go all in… Today, we have 90,000 plants. But we will have to replant, because after 20 years, that’s what you have to do.”
Nicole and Simon learned gradually, while starting up their small business. “I developed my market on my own. Each year, we added new restaurants, in addition to supermarkets and customers who came to see us.”
“It was definitely our neighbour, who produced such good asparagus and asked us if we would like to get into the business!”
“We are at the mercy of the weather, like all farmers. But there are also other challenges. We work very hard, non-stop, during the season. It only lasts two months, but during those two months, we live at a frantic pace!”
“It’s to see all these people who find us and come to see us in our green countryside. It’s a big detour! We’re always surprised by our success, and so happy! You have to say it’s beautiful here!”
“As much the chefs as our customers and the farmers who, like us, are passionate.”
“That our children continue this wonderful adventure!”
“We have won awards, but what is most rewarding for us is the happiness we bring to everyone who eats our asparagus.”
“For us, eating fresh vegetables grown in our garden is an extraordinary luxury.”
ENFANTS TERRIBLES SINCE 2011
“Les Enfants Terribles was one of our first restaurant customers!”