For years, Espace Old Mill’s two-acre space out back facing the Rivière aux Brochets remained a lawn, a piece of decorative but inert land at the centre of the small, sleepy, Loyalist anglophone town of Stanbridge East in the Eastern Townships’ Brome-Missisquoi region.
It’s an area rich with bucolic landscapes and small-scale farmers, among them Jean-Martin Fortier, a farmer, educator, and bestselling author of The Market Gardener (originally Les Jardins de la Grelinette)—a seminal handbook on returning to the basics of farming with low-tech, high-yield small-scale organic farming methods—who acquired Espace Old Mill after years of driving by and dreaming about possibilities.
“I’ve spent many years educating growers on how to farm successfully, and what a small-acre farm needs, but my mission is also to talk about local food systems and the people who care [for them],” Fortier says. Knowing how long it can take to see a harvest, he’s now discovered how the intensity and reward of a new hospitality project could yield a different crop entirely. Over a year, the site and its historic 1849 building would be turned into not only a garden and carbon-neutral greenhouse but also a circular farm-to-table restaurant and five-room inn where Fortier could relocate his offices for his master class on ecological farming—all based on the importance of buying and eating locally and in season.
An expansion of agro-tourism with a farmer-first philosophy, “it’s a bit of a new genre,” Fortier explains. “There are many things here in a new format. Normally, it’s a chef who has a garden, but this is a gardener who has a restaurant—it’s fine dining, but it’s personal. People ask if they need to take off their shoes when they come in.”
À la carte during the week, the restaurant hosts a more involved farmers table on Saturdays as flames are stoked in the fireplace, next to which guests dine on a vegetable-forward, five-course meal lasting several hours with in-depth explanations of the ingredients and dishes. They also visit the greenhouse.
For years, Fortier’s worked with chefs, bringing fresh vegetables no matter the season. At Espace Old Mill, the farm-to-table concept is more direct, not unlike what’s found in the regional French countryside in both atmosphere and offerings.
Except for items like salt and coffee, the restaurant’s menus endeavour to focus on local ingredients, the most recent featuring as many as 19 different farms—including what Espace Old Mill and Fortier’s own nearby farm Ferme des Quatre-Temps produces—as well as regional wines, ciders, and beers.
“This isn’t a 100-mile diet, per se. When you’re surrounded by the best of everything you need, why would you need anything from anywhere else?” Fortier asks.
At the helm of the kitchen is chef Éric Gendron, who previously worked at restaurants like Lawrence in Montreal’s Mile End before leaving the city for Montérégie at the end of 2020. There, he imported a city’s gastronomy into the region’s agriculture and tourism with restaurant called La Table Fermière at the Dunham Brewery in Dunham, near Stanbridge East.
As Fortier’s previous farm was never open to the public, Espace Old Mill represents a way of bringing people in. “The end game is the creation of a space where we like being, and where people can feel welcome and part of a solution [alongside] eating well,” he says. “This is how we can show a way of eating locally and seasonally, even in January, February, and March.”
People are excited to see the farm, walk through the greenhouse, and see the space and what’s going on there, Fortier adds. “They eat, and they can see what’s growing, and part of my speech is about how they could be doing it themselves at home.
“So far, the project is exactly how I wished it to be.”
Espace Old Mill is located at 7 Chemin Caleb Tree in Stanbridge East, Quebec.