In a field northeast of Montreal, monks from the Val Notre-Dame Abbey are cultivating a century-old melon that was nearly lost to time.
The Oka melon is a fusion of a banana melon and a Montreal melon, a famed fruit that once grew on the slopes of Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood and was served by the slice for the price of a steak in classy Manhattan restaurants. The Oka melon, last grown nearly 70 years ago, is sweet, juicy and softer than industrial-grown melons, with a rich orange flesh.
When the Val Notre-Dame monks were located in Oka, about 120 kilometres from their current location in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, they had an agriculture school and developed a number of prized foods, including Oka cheese and the Chantecler chicken.
The Oka melon, which is particularly suited for Quebec’s harsh climate, was grown between 1912 and 1924, but disappeared in the 1950s as other varieties of melon became more popular with the rise of large-scale industrial farms.
Now the Oka melon is staging a revival, thanks to organic farmer Jean-François Lévêque and his farm Jardins de l’écoumène, in the small parish town of Saint-Damien. The farm is the largest in a network of 12 Quebec seed farms that produces heirloom and organic fruit and vegetable seeds in an effort to preserve the province’s agriculture heritage.
Lévêque first discovered Oka melon seeds 15 years ago while looking in the archive of Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that preserves seeds in the United States. Lévêque was more devoted to the popular Montreal melon at the time, but soon realized the Oka was better adapted to the cold and that its seeds were more likely to produce melons of a consistent size.
In 2017, during the inauguration of a new garden at Val Notre-Dame, Mr. Lévêque suggested the monks start growing the Oka melon, given it was a key part of their history and the heritage of Quebec, and gave them some seeds to restart their crop.
Lévêque hopes to produce 25 pounds of Oka melon seeds this year, which anyone can buy to grow in their farm or garden. Jardins de l’écoumène also produces 20 to 30 varieties of other Quebec heirloom seeds, as well as various others from Nordic countries that would suit Quebec’s climate.
The Trappist monks are keeping the Oka melon alive by growing around 40 melons a season on their 187-hectare property, which also houses a modern abbey designed by renowned architect Pierre Thibault. The melons are grown solely to feed the abbey’s 19 monks, aged 31 to 95, who live a lifestyle that has changed little since the Oka melon was last grown by the abbey.
“It’s about tradition,” said Brother Michel Lessard, who has been a monk at Val Notre-Dame for two years. “We’re connecting with the roots of our community that grew that [melon] over 100 years ago.”
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