Sacred Ground

Chef Horst Pfeifer saw horticultural promise in a parking lot adjoining an abandoned convent near his New Orleans restaurant. Now Bella Luna patrons dine on cuisine made with freshly picked herbs from his garden plot.

| April/May 2000

  • Illustration by Susan Strawn Bailey

Horst Pfeifer hates to see land devoid of harvestable produce. Give him a plot, and he’ll make something—anything—grow on it. As a boy, that meant his own child-size garden on his family’s farm in the small town of Bachlingen, Germany, near Rothenburg. As a denizen of New Orleans’s Vieux Carré, the French Quarter, it means a courtyard filled with a dozen pots sprouting chives, basil, lemon balm, and more.

When Pfeifer first laid eyes on a football-field-size plot 150 yards from Bella Luna, his new French Quarter restaurant, he immediately envisioned a chef’s garden. No matter that the area was paved, weed-ridden, and owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. (It was also adjacent to the now vacant Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.) Pfeifer knew that beneath the blacktop was land—and he wanted it.

“When I first moved into the neighborhood, I met Monsignor Alvin J. O’Reilly,” recalls Pfeifer. “I learned the convent, built in 1745, once boasted an extensive herb garden, which Ursuline nuns used to feed colonial schoolgirls and to treat French soldiers during the French Revolution. One of the original nuns, Sister Francis Xavier, was the first female pharmacist in the Western Hemisphere and grew medicinal herbs.” The convent held the first school for girls, served as the nation’s first orphanage and day nursery, and was the first retreat house for women.

Pfeifer persuaded O’Reilly to let him restore the land surrounding the convent but agreed to plant medicinal along with culinary herbs as O’Reilly wished to return the land to its condition when Sister Francis Xavier gardened there. The chef then talked Rose Buras, a local horticulturist, into lending a hand with the design. In the summer of 1994, heavy machinery removed the blacktop and scraped off 6 inches of topsoil. Fresh topsoil was delivered, and within six weeks, Pfeifer and his kitchen crew had laid out fifteen 12-by-14-foot beds and installed PVC French drains to carry away excess water. Each bed contains a different soil mixture. Those holding thyme, rosemary, and lavender have a high proportion of gravel and sand to ensure rapid drainage. Basil goes into a bed that holds richer soil with less sand.

History and culinary needs dictate the herb garden’s plantings. “We found letters and notes in the convent’s archives, so I had an idea of what the nuns originally grew,” Pfeifer says. “Then, with advice from Rose, I chose a mix of what would grow well and herbs I knew I would like.” Pfeifer admits that he added a few unfamiliar herbs. “I always thought of lemon and silver thyme as novelties, but I cooked with them and learned to use them.”

Today, Pfeifer grows more than forty herbs. Seven beds of antique tea roses (cared for by O’Reilly) bordered with evergreen trees lead to an expansive green lawn and the chef’s herb garden. A 5-foot-tall prostrate rosemary planted on top of a post (to hide an unsightly driveway) adjoins a plot of sorrel, parley, chervil, and cilantro. Chives encircle a bed of sweet and ‘Mammoth’ lettuce-leaf basil, while assorted mints hold court in a far corner in a bed of their own. Ginger, catnip, and lemongrass fringe a pond with its own rushing waterfall, and various thymes share space with tarragon, garlic chives, and lavender.

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