At Maritime Quebec’s Reford Garden (Mont Joli Jarden de Métis), it’s all about the flowers – growing them, cooking with them, eating them.
Reford Garden, the 50-year project of Elsie Stephen Reford, wife of wealthy Canadian shipping magnate Robert Wilson Reford, is best known as one of the few places in the world where Himalayan blue poppies grow prolifically (more than 1,000 plants). However, under the guidance of Elsie’s great grand-son Alexander Reford and young chef Pierre Olivier Ferry, the 250-acre garden is breaking new ground in the culinary uses of flowers and herbs and becoming a must-visit destination for in-the-know foodies.
Given the garden’s difficult location and its creator’s total lack of horticultural experience, it’s a wonder Reford Garden even exists. In 1926, at age 54, Elsie Reford broke ground on her garden. The summer before, the avid horsewoman and salmon fisher had contracted appendicitis and her doctor suggested gardening might be a “more appropriate” choice than battling 50-pound fish in wild ocean waters.
Little did he know that Elsie would launch a project that would replace a spruce forest with a garden that today includes more than 3,000 varieties and species of plants grown in some of the harshest conditions in North America.
When she began her effort, Elsie knew little about plants and even less about soil conditions necessary to grow them. She soon discovered that the land that overlooks the St. Lawrence and the Mitis River is better suited to fishing than to gardening. A prolific journalist who scrupulously documented her gardening successes and failures, Elsie wrote this about the soil, “There was nothing adequate for horticultural purposes.”
Undaunted by the hardscrabble ground, she started creating soil for each plant she selected. She had peat and sand delivered from nearby farms and gravel hauled from local beaches. The soil needed leaf compost, but her land didn’t have the necessary deciduous trees so she traded area farmers salmon for giant piles of leaves. For the heavy work, she employed neighbors, many of whom were out of work because of the Great Depression.
Before Elsie, no one had tried gardening in the lower St. Lawrence (called Bas-Saint-Laurent by locals) and with good reason. The nearest nursery is hundreds of miles away. The area is constantly inundated by moisture from the sea and killer frosts are common. In the winter, snow can pile 11 feet high (three meters) and it comes early in November and doesn’t melt until May. The temperatures can plummet from -13 degrees F. to -31 F. (-25 to -35 degrees C.).
Additionally, Elsie herself battled physical challenges, including severe allergies that could put her in bed for several days at a time. However, she was never one to shrink from a challenge. Elsie rode from Métis to Gaspé on horseback (sidesaddle of course), a journey of 350 miles (500 kilometers), not once but twice (alone and once with her two sons). In her hometown of Montréal, she was known for her civic, social, and philanthropic activism. She helped found the Women’s Canadian Club of Montréal and tirelessly raised money for causes like the Montréal Maternity Hospital. During the First World War, she went to England and volunteered, translating German documents into English. In her garden at Métis, Elsie proved equally formidable.
An Intuitive Garden
Elsie was not trained in landscape architecture. Instead, she let her intuition, the land’s topography, and her love of particular plants guide her. Page’s Brook, a stream that meanders east and west through the garden, became a central design element. The water source rages in the spring and burbles in late summer and along its banks she planted a series of naturalistic gardens of plants and trees, including lilacs and hybrid crabapples. She added curving paths and graceful bridges that criss-cross the water. She didn’t care for straight lines and there’s only one in the garden, a 300-foot-long herbaceous border she dubbed The Long Walk.
She was a gardener and a plant collector and planted both exotic and native species. Lilies were one of her favorites and she planted more than 60 species and cultivars. She also collected gentians, diminutive alpine plants that grow at high elevations throughout the world. She was the first in North American to plant azaleas (some imported from the Exbury Garden in England), a plant normally more suited to temperate climates. She planted the azaleas and other tender plants like red Japanese maples in the lowest parts in the garden, away from the biting winds. Today, The Azalea Walk blooms in riotous shades of peach, yellow, red, and pink.
Elsie Reford left her garden for the final time in 1959 and never returned. By then, she’d given the property to her son, Bruce, who sold the garden two years later to the Government of Quebec. The garden opened to the public in 1962 and became a major attraction. However, its popularity wasn’t enough to sustain it and, in 1994, the government sold the Reford Garden to the nonprofit Les Ateliers Plein Soleil, whose members include relatives of the Reford family, including Elsie’s great-grandson Alexander, now Director of the garden.
A Delicious Legacy
Elsie died in 1967 at the age of 96, but her legacy at Reford Garden lives on and is being transformed into a culinary destination through the combined efforts of grandson Alexander and innovative Chef Olivier Ferry. Estevan Lodge, the former vacation home of Elsie and John, has been turned into a museum and restaurant that’s open June 15-September 15. Chef Olivier, who has been at Estevan Restaurant for the past five years, uses 120 different edible flowers and herbs and 150 different vegetables from the garden in his menu. In addition, he works with area farms to supplement things they don’t grow in the garden.
“We have so many beautiful pesticide-free products from our gardens, it makes sense to us to include them in our meals,” says Alexander. “We want to offer people a unique taste experience.”
And unique it is. Each diner is greeted with an achingly beautiful edible flower spoon, a soup spoon filled with tiny flowers, herbs, and fruits that fills the mouth with subtle and surprisingly delicious flavors. The chef’s grilled halibut is served in the Lodge’s cedar-paneled dining room next to the fireplace adorned with the Reford’s family crest and comes with micro-greens and parsnip puree and a light, lemony sauce made from daylily buds, all grown in the garden.
His shredded carrot salad with sweet, buttery welks (sea snails) caught nearby in the St. Lawrence River includes garden grown red and yellow carrots, thinly sliced celery, fresh lemon basil leaves and globs of clear, sweet Labrador jelly that’s made onsite. He also makes flower cocktails, including an elderflower cocktail, a sweet, refreshing drink served with or without alcohol. This summer, they’ll be offering flower-themed cocktail and small plate parties
It’s not always easy working with fresh herbs, flowers, and vegetables that are ever-changing and many that are only available for a short time. “Early in the season when we open,” says Chef Olivier, “there aren’t many vegetables or flowers available. I constantly change the menu as different vegetables, flowers, and herbs come on to capture them at their freshest.”
Luckily, the abundant moisture that makes growing plants in Reford Garden challenging also makes for rapid growth during the short summer season. Plants literally explode with new growth as the weather warms. In addition, the area’s cool nights mean plants stay in bloom longer than in other gardens.
In the restaurant, they use both products cultivated in their new greenhouses and wild products from the garden. “When we realized we had lots of beautiful products that are edible, we wanted to share that,” says Alexander. “We want to become a culinary destination.”
To that end, Chef Olivier is always looking for new tastes and textures and different uses for his flowers and herbs like using day lily bulbs in place of potatoes or tulips stuffed with diced apples and fried. However, his experiments don’t always work out.
“We’ve had some spectacular failures,” says Olivier, smiling a bit sheepishly. “We tried the plant spilanthes [also known as the toothache plant] and you put it in your mouth and it causes you to have no feeling like you’ve just gone to the dentist.”
They’re also experimenting with using weeds in culinary products. “One man’s weed is another man’s delicacy,” deadpans Alexander as he walks us through the garden.
One innovative use of plants is a line of unusual Reford Garden culinary products they’ve developed, including daisy buds (they taste like capers), pickled fiddleheads, marinated pickles, and jams and jellies like crabapple, wild mint, wild strawberry, and wild blueberries and lavender. The products, which are made every week in the restaurant kitchen, can be purchased at the garden’s boutique or online (they ship worldwide).
As we stroll through a shady meandering pathway with Alexander after our lunch, he says, “It’s a heavy responsibility carrying on my family’s legacy of Reford Garden. But it’s also wonderful because it allows us to be really creative and innovative.”
Elsie would be deliciously proud.
— Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Editor’s note 4/24/12: This story took top honors in the Canada Culinary Journalism Awards. Details