The Peterborough Examiner

A rooftop-to-table movement is taking root

Innovative restaurant­s are reaping what they’ve sown — right overhead


Walking through the garden, I spot wild stinging nettle leaves, delicate yarrow tendrils and the tiny green shoots of what will become the season’s first garlic stretching out from the rich soil. The first signs of spring are popping up throughout southern Ontario, but what makes this bucolic scene different is that we’re two stories up, on the roof of the brewery/restaurant Avling at the decidedly un-farm-like intersecti­on of Queen and Pape in Leslievill­e.

The urban garden, which has been growing since Avling opened in 2019, supplies a varied abundance of produce, from carrots, green beans and tomatoes to snow peas, zucchini and beets, and all kinds of herbs. Some of this bounty makes it into the brewery’s storefront farmers’ market, started last summer and available seasonally, but most is used to keep the kitchen in the freshest ingredient­s possible. They even grow hops, though not nearly enough to provide for the brewery yearround.

Avling’s garden is part of the new rooftop-to-table movement taking root in innovative restaurant­s around the world, from Stedsans OsterGRO in Copenhagen to Acre in Melbourne. Max Meighen, Avling’s owner, cites New York-based Brooklyn Grange, an 11-year-old company specializi­ng in rooftop farming, as an inspiratio­n. That company is responsibl­e for the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, covering more than 5.5 acres in and around New York and yielding in excess of 100,000 pounds of organicall­y grown produce each year.

The Europeans are also embracing this atypically situated farmland. Last summer, French urban agricultur­al developer Agripolis opened Europe’s largest urban rooftop farm, in Paris. Measuring nearly 3.5 acres, the site grows more than 30 different plant species. The world’s largest urban rooftop farm, spanning a whopping 40 acres, the whole thing covered by greenhouse glass, belongs to Lufa Farms in Montreal.

Avling’s 4,000 square feet of rooftop garden can’t rival those vast acreages and will probably never even yield enough produce to turn a profit, but for Meighen that’s beside the point. “The idea was really about building an education space, a community space, a way to make the agricultur­al concepts of what ‘farm to table’ can mean concrete for people.”

The brewery ran a few gardening workshops last summer and plans on doing so again this year (pandemic restrictio­ns permitting). Meighen and the restaurant’s two full-time gardeners, Lindsay Sangster and Micheline Lalonde, envision a place where people can learn how to replenish and improve their soil, or discover the proper way to save seeds, or even just where kids can come and plant a tomato seed, watch it grow through the year and bring home a few ripe tomatoes when they’re in season.

As soon as people have a closer relationsh­ip to the ingredient­s going into what they eat — which can be something as simple as growing their own herbs on their balcony — “they start to feel a stronger connection to their food,” Sangster says. “And from there, it just has ripple effects throughout the food system.”

“They’re going to start to understand the work it takes to grow a seed to a plant,” Lalonde agrees. “As soon as people taste the difference and spend time in a garden where things are growing well, that’s when they start to become advocates for healthy food systems in their community.”

Across town at the opposite end of Queen Street, Guy Rawlings, chef and co-owner of Montgomery’s, has also been growing herbs and vegetables in self-watering containers on his Queen West restaurant’s rooftop for a few years. For Rawlings, the challenges of urban gardening are far outweighed by the many rewards, which include developing a greater appreciati­on for the true cost of food waste.

“It’s really easy to throw something out, or let it rot in the veg drawer of your fridge, like we all do at home, myself included,” says Rawlings, “but there’s a lot of lessons to be had for a cook who took the time to plant the seed, germinate it, water it, pick it. You get sad when you waste it. There’s a great lesson there that will carry on to other products you didn’t grow.”

Bloor Street’s Burdock Brewery doesn’t exactly grow things on its rooftop garden. Instead it enlists a team of several thousand to help with their rooftop farm — specifical­ly, tens of thousands of worker bees, flitting in and out of the hives that co-owner Matt Park has installed.

Hives like his have been a part of Toronto’s roofscape for a number of years, with hotels like the Fairmont Royal York and Shangri-La getting into the game early. Despite a mysterious illness that wiped out his entire hive last year, Park will introduce a new queen and workers later this spring.

“It was really sad to lose the bees,” Park says, “but it’s nice to be connected to our ingredient­s. We pride ourselves on using really high-quality ingredient­s and to be able to make something yourself is often the nicest way to do it.”

Park also loves the idea that the bees are part of the local ecosystem. “These bees are foraging within a 5-kilometre radius of us,” he says. “They’re getting pollen from the flowers of our rooftop garden, and from our neighbours’ flowers. They might even be getting it from Toronto Island or High Park.” Burdock’s hives produce around 70 pounds of honey each season, and most of that makes its way into the desserts, while some gets incorporat­ed into the beer as a secondary fermentati­on starter.

Roof-to-table or roof-to-bottle dining is far from the most practical or bankable way of operating a business, but for these chefs and gardeners the benefits surpass the profit motive. No one I spoke with expects such urban farming to ever be able to compete with traditiona­l rural farms. But for them, the simple joy of turning an unused and otherwise desolate space into something alive and growing is reward enough.

 ??  ?? Above: The 4,000-square-foot rooftop garden at Toronto brewery/restaurant Avling.
Above: The 4,000-square-foot rooftop garden at Toronto brewery/restaurant Avling.
 ?? AVLING PHOTOS ?? Left: The rooftop bounty lets Avling’s kitchen benefit from the freshest peas, herbs and other produce.
AVLING PHOTOS Left: The rooftop bounty lets Avling’s kitchen benefit from the freshest peas, herbs and other produce.

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