Of monks and melons: Preserving Quebec's delicious agricultural heritage
'I want to give it the Oka melon the honour it deserves,' says organic seed farmer
In the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, a group of Cistercian monks living in a contemporary-style abbey have relearned how to grow a juicy heirloom melon created by one of their forefathers 100 years ago.
The Oka melon's rebirth in the abbey's garden was made possible by an organic seed farmer, Jean-François Lévêque, who is on a mission to rekindle lost parts of Quebec's agricultural heritage.
"I can't preserve this history alone," Lévêque said at the Les Jardins de l'Écoumene farm in Saint-Damien, about 100 kilometres north of Montreal, and a few minutes drive from the monks' abbey.
Heirloom foods are rare because most of the produce in grocery stores comes from large-scale agriculture farms. The industrial farms grow a narrow variety of food bred to be uniform and to have higher yields in order to feed bustling cities.
Before such large-scale farms, food around North America was highly diverse, and seeds from that time help tell the story of how people used to eat.
'Part of our heritage'
When it comes to the history of Quebec food, monks are central, and the religious order visited by Lévêque has a particularly delicious history.
The monks of the Val Notre-Dame abbey founded an agriculture school in 1893, when they lived in Oka, just outside Montreal.
That's where they created the Chantecler chicken — a bird bred to withstand Quebec's cold winters — and the celebrated Oka cheese.
The school closed in the 1960s when religious orders across Quebec handed over education and health-care institutions to the secular state and it became the faculty of agronomy at what was then the Montreal campus of Université Laval.
Somewhere along the years the monks lost the Oka melon — and then Lévêque showed up.
Their dwindling numbers forced them out of their large abbey in Oka and into the smaller residence at the end of a winding trail in the small town of Saint-Jean-de-Matha, at the base of the Coupée mountain.
More like an art student's dream than a religious residence, the Val Notre-Dame abbey was designed by Quebec architect Pierre Thibault and is home to 18 monks aged 42 to 91.
In the middle of the abbey is a courtyard surrounded by glass walls that stretch from the floor to the ceiling, revealing a preserved part of the forest, where the monks can watch the four seasons pass in tranquility.
Brother Lucien, a soft-spoken monk gowned in black and white robes, said he didn't know how or why his ancient religious order lost the Oka melon seeds.
"It's part of our heritage and history — and it's also delicious," he said. "Older generations know about the role that we played, but it's no longer part of our modern history."
He took out two black and white pictures of Father Athanas Montour, who was wearing robes not dissimilar to the ones Brother Lucien had on.
In the photo, Montour has close-cropped hair and a long, shaggy salt-and-pepper beard making him look like a singer in a bluegrass band.
"Look at his nice monk head and thick beard," Brother Lucien said, in reverence. "He died quite young, in 1925, from a blocked intestine. He made the Oka melon."
A mix of melons
The Oka melon is a cross between the banana melon and the Montreal melon, which itself has quite the history.
Journalists have been for years "rediscovering" the Montreal melon and writing articles about how a well-to-do Montreal family grew them on the slopes of what is now the city's NDG neighbourhood.
The immense muskmelons would be boxed and sold to Manhattan elites in the early 1900s and one slice reportedly cost as much as a steak.
The Montreal melon's seeds were also lost for decades but unearthed several years ago.
Lévêque doesn't care for the Montreal melon, though.
"It's a disappointing melon," he said, because there is no uniformity to the seeds. Some seeds produce giant melons while others are small.
"Fifty per cent of the time you harvest it too early or too late, and the taste isn't there," he said.
But when he discovered the Oka melon while looking through the archives of an American seed bank, Lévêque knew he had to bring the fruit back to life.
Last summer, for the first time in decades, the monks of Val Notre-Dame harvested the Oka melon.
Lévêque's mission doesn't stop at the abbey. He wants backyard and community farmers to breathe new life into historical seeds that tell Quebecers' story.
Part of that includes having the Oka melon registered in the Arc of Taste, a catalogue of endangered heirloom foods from around the world. The arc is managed by the Slow Food organization, based in Italy.
He has to convince a committee the Oka melon is worth registering, and he's confident it'll happen.
"I want to give it the Oka melon the honour it deserves," Lévêque said.