Quebec pioneers in heirloom vegetables
Valérie Leblond, owner of Le Jardin des chefs farm (and extremely lucky to have Jean and Catherine Leblond as parents ;-!).
Eco-friendly farming – also customized for chefs – of more than 30 vegetable varieties, most of which are heirloom and available in miniature versions. There are also edible flowers and Gorria (Espelette-style) peppers. If you are in the area, feel free to stop by. There’s a stand where you can buy their produce!
Each year, Le Jardin des chefs also offers a few new products. For example, new arrivals in the 2019 harvest include yellow jalapeno, Charentais melon, skirret and oyster leaves.
Before becoming a business, Le Jardin des chefs was called “La Métairie du Plateau” (tenant farm on the plateau). It’s a unique place where Catherine and Jean Leblond chose to settle in 1975, to live closer to the river with their five kids. The Charlevoix is a well-known region, along with the village of Les Éboulements. But the Plateau des Éboulements is something else: a little place blessed by the gods, nestled between sea and sky. It’s a few degrees warmer than its surroundings, to the point where you can usually plant earlier and harvest later in the season.
Both Leblonds have a passion for nature and agriculture (Catherine for flowers and Jean for all the good things from the Earth that we can eat), so they embarked on a decades-long adventure, until passing the torch to their daughter Valérie, who took over in 2012.
It was in this unique setting where the five Leblond children grew up and thrived. Their youth also included a few years travelling with their parents. On these journeys, the family picked up a plethora of ideas, smells, colours and tastes, which they would share after returning home to Quebec.
In 1976, Catherine bought an inn in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive “right at the bottom of the hill.” La Perdriole will long remain etched in the memories of those lucky enough to spend a few days there. Guests felt like they were among family, ate like royalty, served by a whole gang of teenagers and young adults who laughed and breathed happiness, including little Valerie, the second youngest, who was only 10 years old when the family settled in the region. “I had wonderful years with my brothers and sisters, running around, helping out at the farm, helping at the inn, playing in the clay or with the frogs, eating fresh carrots. I grew up in a festive environment, where meals were grandiose and never-ending,” she says.
In those days, chefs had trouble finding the vegetables they really wanted. By word of mouth, Jean Leblond soon became known to Quebec’s leading chefs, who wanted to offer their guests a meal equally tasty and attractive. They nicknamed Jean “jardinier des chefs” (gardener to the chefs). La Métairie therefore became known as “Le Jardin des chefs,” a genuine laboratory for testing and innovating in the field of gastronomic agriculture. They continue to supply the biggest names on the culinary scenes of Montreal, Quebec City and the Charlevoix.
“Back then, Quebec farmers mostly grew traditional crops, but my father, driven by demand from some of Quebec’s top chefs, started producing blue potatoes, Belle de Fontenay potatoes and ratte potatoes, fennel, New Zealand spinach, baby leeks, yellow beets, Chinese artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, baby turnips, pattypan squash and rondes de Nice squash, to name a few. He also offered what is known as ‘gourmet mesclun’ based on lettuce shoots and edible flowers. In those days, my mother was involved in picking flowers and removing the petals. My father spoke with the chefs and had fun trying to fulfill their requests. This would sometimes lead to failure, but sometimes the harvest was excellent! He has always been driven by the desire to promote heirloom and uncommon varieties in Quebec.”
“When I was 13 or 14, he told me he was ‘creating a colour palette for chefs, that he was an artist’s artisan.’ That irritated me! But today, with hindsight, I have to admit he was right all along.”
Jean Leblond passed on his love for the Earth, his vision, his science and his customers to Valérie, who took over the company in November 2012. “He’s the best consultant you can dream of for everything farming-related. My mother is an extraordinary advisor on the emotional side. And since they live nearby, they’re always there for me, to help my daughter and me during busy periods on the farm, she says. And Dad still keeps a small ‘laboratory field’ to continue trying new things, naturally.”
In 2008, Valérie returned to live with her parents. She needed to take a year off, being exhausted from the rat race and the mother of a little girl. This “year off” is now in its twelfth year, and Valérie has no desire to go back to the city. “As my father used to say – that also irritated me a lot! – the reward for a life like ours is the river and the beauty of the place, the ability to pick a handful of fresh beans for dinner… I’m here to stay, and so happy I can help my daughter experience what I have lived.”
“Of course, there’s the challenge of making ends meet, financially speaking, when you run a farm. There’s fierce competition for vegetables when you do artisanal farming. It’s also a challenge to respect the Earth as best we can, so that it will be kind to us. Manual work is the best way to make sure the Earth will be generous,” Valerie explains.
Crop rotation, among other things, is essential, and when the season ends in late October, Valerie goes to bed. “I sleep for a month!” she says with a laugh. But it’s almost true. “Then, in December and January, I slowly start thinking about the next season. I start visualizing the fields, drawing them, especially to outwit the insects, which will no longer be able to find their way!”
“I love it when I discover little wonders in the spring that return unexpectedly. Last year, at the end of the season, I lazily put my poet carnations on the ground, under the work tables outside, rather than in the compost. And in the spring, they started to flower again. A real gift! And then, when I start planting in the greenhouse, and after three or four days I see little green heads appear – there’s no shortage of them – every year I start crying. When the Earth provides things like that, it gives you a certain perspective. I’m here to do what people ask of me. It’s not me who decides for the rest…”
“My parents, of course, who were able to build a small paradise through their hard work and pass on the love that inspired them to us all.”
“My dream is to make our Gorria pepper better known. We now have a small stand next to the farm, where we sell our products, including our peppers in various forms (ground, etc.). Marketing the pepper will also help me continue my business during the winter, a wish that I hold dear.”
“On the day of the official transfer of control from Dad to me. I kept a low profile because I wanted to give him all the space. He had invited nearly 150 chefs, a ton of friends, family and neighbours… It was a major gourmet celebration as well as my father’s farewell — Although, like Dominique Michel, he had been announcing his departure for a few years!”
“Everything from the sea…”
ENFANT TERRIBLE SINCE NOVEMBER 2016