Long live the salsify: Quebec chefs and farmers join up to support heirloom seeds

It's not every day you pop into a posh Quebec City restaurant and find a salsify on your plate.

For the record, a salsify is a root vegetable not so different from a long, thin parsnip that can be boiled, mashed or used in a stew.

Arnaud Marchand, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Chez Boulay, brought the little-known vegetable into his menu as part of an initiative to safeguard Quebec's heritage seeds.

"The salsify, it's a vegetable that I love. It's a vegetable that is easy to work with, that tastes good fried or glazed with gravy," said Marchand.

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He's just one of a group of 50 chefs and agricultural producers who have come together under the banner of "Gardien de semences," which means seed keeper or guardian in French.

Their goal is to bring lesser known or forgotten seeds and produce into the kitchen and onto plates in order to preserve them.

"When we pick up a tomato today, it's not at all like the same tomato a hundred years earlier," explained Thibault Renouf, co-founder of a company called Arrivage, which launched the seed initiative last year.

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Renouf said today's tomatoes have no taste, and that they are engineered to withstand travel and days on the supermarket shelf.

He said that protecting heirloom seeds that are tied to Quebec's culinary heritage also helps to preserve biodiversity on a local level.

With this in mind, producers teamed up to create a seed catalogue as part of the guardianship program.

Julie Ross, owner of Le Jardin de Julie, said it's great that the initiative connects seed banks, farmers and chefs across the province.

"Our seed heritage is shrinking year after year in Quebec," she said. "Seed keepers — it's a bit like Star Académie for rare vegetables."