FRANCE is rich in gardens that reflect its cultural tastes, as those tastes have been from the Middle Ages to the present. What better way to breathe in the essence of the French than to wander outdoors in designed spaces where you can smell and touch the living displays, talk and move freely, and absorb at your own pace? What you see is art in motion; gardens are never static.
We go to France, of course, with expectations of arousing the senses. Gardens can engage all five, particularly ornamental kitchen gardens, potagers fleuris, where simply to gaze on a shrub heavy with pale-green ripe gooseberries is to pique the taste buds as well as delight the eye. As I prepared to make a grand tour -- two tours, in fact -- of French potagers last year, I thought of them as windows on the nation's character: on its groomed manner of living and its keen discernment of subtlety. And I was aware that kitchen gardens are much in vogue -- the very place to savor French style.
To plot my route, I studied Patrick Taylor's The Garden Lover's Guide to France, Louisa Jones's The Art of French Vegetable Gardening, and a slim, indispensable brochure, titled Parcs et Jardins, and published by the Conseil Régional du Centre, that lists eighty-five gardens in the geographic heart of the country (available by faxing 011-33-2-38-70-31-18). The Loire Valley, in particular, beckoned with its high concentration of chateau gardens -- the best known among them being the one at Villandry. In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries French courtiers built their chateaux along the river's flat, fertile banks -- turreted castles with walled potagers. Many of the chateaux are open to the public today, in order that their owners can qualify for tax breaks and government grants.
The potagers I visited -- more than a dozen -- were by turns stunningly beautiful, shamelessly ostentatious (420 varieties of tomatoes -- really!), roadside humble, and reassuringly practical. My itinerary, begun on one trip and completed on the other, swung counterclockwise from the Ile de France south and east through the Loire Valley and back, dipping down into Poitou. But a garden pilgrim could as easily take a train out of Paris to, say, Tours, and rent a car for day trips. I set off with Cary, a fellow gardener, for a week in early summer, and returned in October during the fall harvest with my husband, Bill -- not someone, as it happens, who instinctively caresses rosemary.
AS Cary and I drove southwest from Paris through the Ile de France, we wondered aloud if the French would allow their courgettes to romp unrestrained or their strawberries to invade the haricots verts. Or would every plot be pollarded and pinched into chic obedience? Our first stop was Château de Saint-Jean de Beauregard, near Les Ulis, whose revered owner, Muriel de Curel, began her ambitious restoration of the chateau's 300-year-old walled potager in 1985. Now every fall she holds an internationally popular harvest festival celebrating old-fashioned varieties of vegetables.
While Cary seated herself among the bees in a flowering rose arbor, I stalked a visiting school group. Under instructions from the long-sweatered garden directrice to listen well, the flock of five-year-olds squatted at the edges of beds flaunting red-stemmed Swiss chard, feathery bronze fennel, and silver-blue heads of cabbage. "Et voilà, mes enfants, what do you suppose this is?" she asked, tugging a root from the earth. "Une carotte, une carotte," they chanted -- except for the three who were intently cornering a frog.
A round, moss-encrusted pool creates the centerpiece of the five-acre garden, which is laid out in four squares that are divided again into four and then sliced into tidy, colorful rows. Water, piped in from outside, is warmed by the sun in great iron cauldrons before being distributed to the plants, so as not to startle them. Tendrils of grapevines were escaping from vents in old greenhouses where, under glass, pebble-sized fruit already clustered. The fruitier, a winter storage shed for apples and pears, slumped poetically against ancient stone walls in a corner. By faithfully reproducing a traditional, highly ordered plan and planting "heirloom" varieties of fruits and vegetables, De Curel honors history. Her dedication to education is palpable.
Less didactic is La Massonnière, a beguiling but rarely visited garden southwest of Le Mans, in the village of Saint-Christophe en Champagne. Designed by a twentieth-century artist, Pierre Kendal Bushe, in an enclosure erected by a seventeenth-century musketeer, the potager at La Massonnière cheerfully integrates a profusion of blooms -- red roses, spires of delphinium, bursts of white cleome -- with vigorous vegetables and fruit trees. As I stood admiring ranks of tomatoes underplanted with cushions of fleshy green lettuce and battalions of miniature yellow snapdragons, a tiny brown bird flew into a boxwood lollipop at my elbow. Immediately a chorus of "Feed me first" burst from the nest hidden inside the whimsical topiary. Every detail, like the ribbons of pink begonias that bordered the strips of lawn edging the stone paths, strengthened the ornamental appeal of the garden. This potager exists simply to enchant its viewers.
Besides the romantically decorative, we were eager to visit the seriously epicurean -- gardens of famous chefs. Impelled by the sober duty of supplying restaurant kitchens, chefs'potagers are almost invariably utilitarian in design. A good example is the gracious estate Domaine des Hauts de Loire, in Onzain between Blois and Tours, where the restaurant and hotel have earned the Relais & Châteaux imprimatur. In the morning we watched the shy, weathered gardener weed unpretentious crops of onions, parsley, blue bachelor buttons, and orange nasturtiums. At noon the talented young chef, Giraud Rémy, tucked nasturtium leaves under stuffed eel and flowers atop mounds of fresh fava beans. Here the potager's sole mission is to serve the chef's art.