In the rural outskirts of Stanbridge East, Quebec, a movement is growing, bridging market gardening with farm-to-table dinners. Restaurant Espace Old Mill is a fresh take on a flourishing trend and a true testament to the magic that can happen when we strive to bring community together. Known internationally for his teachings and advocacy on organic small-scale farming, Jean-Martin Fortier heads up this project with General Director Phillipe Tapp. Together with a dynamic team, they have set out on this new adventure of shining a spotlight on locally grown ingredients fresh off the farm and the beauty of consuming fresh food year-round.
The inviting atmosphere entering the restaurant is a perfect introduction to the warm welcome provided by the knowledgeable and helpful staff. With rustic yet elegant decor, no detail has been spared in creating a comfortable and relaxed environment for guests to feel truly at home. Warming ourselves up by the antique wood-burning stove, we had the opportunity to chat with Tapp and learn more about how this project came to be and where it may be heading.
The main objective of the restaurant is to provide a space for discovering the joy of fresh, local eating - consuming vegetables and other artisan products in season, where flavor profiles are at their absolute peak. They hope to also inspire curiosity amongst patrons regarding how to expand their knowledge on fresh organic produce and different ways to consume it. With rooms available to stay for the night, their agritourism model will surely bring in visitors from far and wide, looking to discover the scenic area’s attractions throughout the seasons.
While the persistent winter in Quebec makes it impossible for any crops to be sown or grown outdoors at this time, a large greenhouse next to the restaurant houses the greens currently showcased on Espace Old Mill’s seasonal menu. Between our tasting menu dinner courses, all restaurant patrons were invited to the greenhouse to meet with Fortier to hear more about how the project is coming together.
Fortier’s greenhouse set up includes an innovative heating system that allows the rows of greens to be heated without raising the temperature in the entire greenhouse, cutting back costs and energy in a way that stays true to his sustainable roots. The greenhouse was already flourishing with various greens, radishes, and baby spinach highlighted on tonight’s menu. At the front of the greenhouse, a heated table is used to germinate tomatoes and other seedlings for early spring planting.
Fortier uses a succession planting method, ensuring the soil always produces a new crop as the last is turned over - building the soil health by rotating what is planted in each plot. When pest problems surface, he is adamant about using an Integrated Pest Management system that targets the pest in question and reduces any need for chemical inputs. He is always striving to find ways to best work with nature and subsequently reap the abundance that she provides.
While still aiming for success in this new venture, Fortier is clear in his intentions that this project is not about prioritizing profits. Throughout his years as a market gardener, author, advocate, and educator, his philosophy has been consistent: Healthy food should be accessible to all. While not everyone may be inspired to farm themselves, there is much empowerment in simplifying our food chain and great benefit in educating communities about the growing importance of food sovereignty. This philosophy is reflected deeply in the energy surrounding Espace Old Mill. As we left the greenhouse to continue our farm-to-table dinner, the connection that had been made served to elevate our experience even more.
In addition to the food grown on-site, every ingredient that makes up each dish on their menu is locally sourced. This includes local farm fresh meat and an array of local wines, ciders, beers, and spirits to complement the cuisine. By being adamant about keeping everything local, the team at Espace Old Mill has genuinely created a celebration of community - where competition is irrelevant, and everyone gets an opportunity to shine.
As our world faces increasing challenges related to our reliance on mass-produced goods for mass consumption - there is a growing need to return to this idea of community as the benefits of consuming local food stretch beyond the improved taste and freshness of the food itself. Food consumed shortly after harvest is also proven to be healthier and contain more nutrients than crops harvested before they are fully ripe (and made to sit on a truck or supermarket shelf for weeks before arriving on your table) (1).
The benefits of using sustainable practices cannot be overstated here - when a grower prioritizes the health of their soil, they also prioritize the health of those consuming their crops. The advantages of small-scale agriculture mean growers can often produce a wider variety of crops, often including heirloom and non-commercial varieties, leading to increased yields and wider biodiversity within the local area (2). This type of food system boasts even more benefits when you factor in the profits being recycled back into the local economy - the local employment opportunities it creates and the connections built between farmers, consumers, and the community.
While industrial agriculture is often seen as the solution to an increasing world population, small-scale and family-run farms produce over 70% of the world’s food (2). The Farm-to-Table movement is a beautiful way to highlight this fact and make it more widely known. Projects like Espace Old Mill have the potential to truly shift the culture around how we eat - and should be revered for their positive impact on the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole. The agritourism aspect also benefits community-building by offering rounded experiences that educate visitors on the importance of sustainable agriculture in a recreational way (3).
The experience at Espace Old Mill is a small, inspired step to what can surely have the potential to become a global movement back to self-reliance, food security, and sustainability. We hope that more and more community food systems get on board with this type of farm-to-table and agritourism model, promoting the enjoyment of local, healthy eating paired with a cultivated appreciation for sustainable growing practices. What a difference this would make in our food system as a whole, our individual health, and our collective humanity.
For more information about Espace Old Mill, visit their website: https://www.espaceoldmill.com/