A couple of winters ago, while visiting Québec City for Winter Carnival, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Jean Soulard, Head Chef of the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. Our discussions ranged from slow cooking to sustainable farming practices to locally-grown produce to the problems of sourcing locally-baked breads and pastries. He promised me a tour of his rooftop herb garden should I return.
And return I did, to enjoy Québec in its summer splendor. And Soulard was waiting with his garden, which is nestled between the towers of the chateau.
Jean’s rooftop herb garden is overflowing with nasturtium, basil, lemon basil, rosemary, lavender, parsley, chives, oregano and more growing between the occasional day lily. The picture-perfect garden is surrounded by the stone walls of the hotel’s tower and presided over by the steep roof and conical towers. This garden is the product of 16 years of tending to these herbs.
The chief chef describes each herb and recounts how he uses them in his kitchen. He speaks of them almost like children — each has a strength and works well in this recipe but behaves badly in others and in the garden itself. There seems to be a bit of an attitude that some herbs play well with others, while some, like oregano are a little full of themselves. He treats each plant according to its personality.
“Charlie,” Jean Soulard says, “I have something new.”
His eyes sparkle and his smile broadens. “This year I added beehives; I am now making my own honey.” He looks at me briefly and goes on, “Well, the bees are making the honey right here on my roof.”
Jean tells the story of how he came to bringing bees to the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. “I have learned a lot of new things from my decision to add beehives. It is a new adventure. While traveling, another chef I met mentioned that he had started to make his own honey, but outside of the city. His comment got bees buzzing in my mind.”
When Jean Soulard returned to Québec, he contacted a local beekeeper and asked him to come to his rooftop garden and let him know whether or not he could successfully keep bees at the hotel. The beekeeper shrugged his shoulders and told Jean that he didn’t see why not. So, they struck a bargain and the beekeeper brought over four hives to get things started last March.
After recounting the basic story, he looked over my way, raised his eyebrows and said, “You know, it is not so easy bringing 300,000 bees to a hotel.” He shook his head, “Bringing them is the easy part, but getting the 700-something staff members to accept them and not be afraid of the bees was a challenge. Now, the bees are part of the hotel and I don’t think the staff would let me get rid of them.”
The result after the spring and summer production was about 300 pounds of honey. Almost all of the honey is used in his recipes and a few hundred jars are used as gifts for special clients, such as a woman returning for her 80th birthday.
The honey is much clearer than most commercial honey. Since there are no pesticides allowed within the city limits, this honey could be called truly organic.
Jean points over towards the west and the Plains of Abraham where the English defeated the French to take over what was then New France. He continues, “The bees fly straight over there and play in the flowers then return here to make honey. Already the hive is overflowing. My fall harvest will be the bigger than either spring or summer.
I asked, “What do you do with the bees during Québec’s cold cold winter?”
He answered while making a wrapping motion, “I will wrap the hives with insulation. Of course, I will put leave some honey in there for the bees to eat. Then I plan to cover the hives with snow, like an ice hotel for the winter while they hibernate.”
He is like a kid with a new toy. Happily, it is a toy that is bringing joy to thousands who dine at the Chateau’s world-class restaurant.
Since most of my comments in the past have focused on Quebec City during the winter as a hub for skiing and snowboarding and the site of the City’s Winter Carnival, three words about the city in the summer are appropriate: This city rocks.
The restaurants and cafés spill out onto the sidewalks, flowers bloom from window boxes, the paths through the city parks are filled with bicyclists, sailboats glide across the St. Lawrence, artists display paintings along narrow streets and lovers stroll arm in arm along the cobblestones within the city’s walls.
It’s well worth the visit. Every comment I heard from visitors coming up from the U.S. for the first time was positive. Almost everyone I spoke with mentioned that this was one of the cleanest city they had visited. They all were surprised at how pleasantly warm the weather was; they expected to find colder weather because Québec seems so far north. And they all loved the cooking.