Fresh and French

A pilgrimage among the potagers, or kitchen gardens, of France

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.

A few miles down the river, in Tours, chef Jean Bardet's potager, however, is an extravagant showpiece in itself, and dinner guests are invited to wander among rows of exotic vegetables such as eggplants that taste like melon and thumbnail-sized golden tomatoes that explode in the mouth. We were impressed by the endless variety of herbs -- I suppose a great chef might need seventeen different kinds of basil. But when we sat down to a meal at Bardet's eponymous, Michelin-two-star restaurant, we found ourselves wondering if the chef's culinary elaborations weren't just too tricky. Nibbling at an elegant little bundle of matchsticks, Cary said, "Delicious, but whatever is it?"

HONEST, working kitchen gardens can be enormously appealing. I was struck to see that these are often aristocrats' labors of love. Still north of the Loire, leap forward three months and slide Bill into the driver's seat. The Count and Countess de Saint Venant were expecting us at their Château de Valmer, in Vouvray, a seventeenth-century, 200-acre property of Italianate terraces, moats that are now awash with flowers, walled potager, and sloping vineyards.

From heights overlooking a surprisingly petit chateau, Alix de Saint Venant, who is a respected landscape designer as well as a countess, explained to a group of ten visitors that the original castle burned to the ground in 1948, owing to an ironing mishap. Lawns and hedges now obscure the old foundations, but the original stone landscaping still dominates the site -- with yards and yards of lichen-covered balustrades, elegant double staircases, graceful fountains, and ancient spiral steps winding down into the moat. The distant view takes in ploughed fields and buttery-yellow poplar woods.

As we descended into the potager, I could see this was indeed a true working garden. "We eat from our garden," Alix said with a shrug. Someone had been interrupted at his harvesting jobs, leaving a half-full basket of beans at the end of a row and a ladder for picking fruit against a wall where apricot and plum trees were pruned into perfect fans. In the greenhouse Alix snipped bunches of grapes for each of us, and we (even Bill) rubbed our fingers on new cuttings of geraniums, releasing the fragrance of rose and nutmeg. Crowds of pink asters lolled against the cardoons, spiky five-foot plants with exuberant gray-green foliage. The edible stems had been wrapped in cardboard to blanch them, for tenderness.

Aymard de Saint Venant, recently retired from banking in Paris, demonstrated the chateau's wine-making operation. We peered into wagons of grapes before they were tipped into the presses. We sipped the unfermented juice on its way to glass-lined vats. Our host ushered us through dank caves stacked with racks of dusty bottles, disturbed only by regular quarter turns to dislodge sediment.

Bill and I stayed for an impromptu lunch in the kitchen of sausage, cheeses, pickles, and salad. The pears, Beurré Hardy, were at their sweetest. It was a job to keep the juice from running down my chin.

In La Bussière, where the Loire loops west, Geneviève de Chasseval, too, has honored the family heritage by revamping the potager at her husband's ancestral Château des Pêcheurs. She began in 1992 with the help of the well-regarded landscape architect Pierre Joyaux. The friendly, gentle countess, long a widow, explained to me that her children, who are now full-grown, create new geometric patterns for the four acres of vegetable beds every year; planting observes the rules of crop rotation and incorporates every speck of manure from the town's last remaining dairy farm. When we praised the dewdrop-bejeweled cabbages in shades of purple to blue, she sighed. "Our daily diet during the war," she said.

As we wandered along beds tangled with Turk's-cap pumpkins and white pattypan squash, I noticed that the heavy glass cloches used to protect tender melons on chilly nights were of multiple pieces glued together. I asked the countess if she knew that factory-made cloches are now available at garden centers. "Oh, yes," she answered, "but these were my grandmother's."

In the Thouet Valley, north of Poitiers, yet another passionate restoration project consumes the heart and soul and the apparently considerable financial resources of Count Charles-Henri de Bartillat. A forty-eight-year-old retired lawyer who fell in love at first sight with Château de Saint-Loup and its pure seventeenth-century architecture, De Bartillat told us, "I was mad -- complètement fou." Eight years ago he bought, from a pop star, the badly neglected 120-acre property, including a medieval tower (where guests can now stay in canopied beds for upwards of $125 a night) and an orangerie (available for parties and wedding receptions).

When we arrived, the chateau was outlined against a pale-pink evening sky. A mother and daughter who had been selling gourds under a small tent at the edge of the moat showed us to our room in the keep and then promptly disappeared into the village, locking the heavy iron gate as they went. The count would be in later that evening, we were to understand. Alone, with the magnificent chateau as backdrop, we strolled the potager, the orchards, and the fields beyond. The tunnel of maples bordering a long canal became so dark that we couldn't make out what was swimming -- extraordinarily large rats, we discovered the next day.

Stretching out behind and below the chateau, the five-acre sunken potager contains enormous squares of vegetables. Using detailed plans of the estate that date from 1745, ancient vegetable varieties, and old espalier patterns, De Bartillat is restoring the garden and orchards. In the previous year he had planted 320 fruit and nut trees. Figs, white-fleshed peaches, and pomegranates were ripening in a courtyard in the shadow of a 400-year-old pigeon tower in need of repairs.

The next morning we met the count and talked with him -- or, really, he talked and we listened. "Why do I give myself to Saint-Loup?" he said, raking his fingers through his hair. "For the love of France." There was no doubt that the count oversees every detail, roof tiles to flower pots, in the rebirth of his spooky and wonderful fairy-tale castle.

No potager pilgrimage would be complete without a stop at the Potager du Roi, the magnificent vegetable and fruit garden commissioned by Louis XIV to accompany the park that Le Nôtre designed for him at Versailles. When the yawning runways of Versailles become tedious, cross the street to the enormous gates opening onto the twenty-two-acre potager, a school of agriculture since the 1870s. Espaliered trees, with trunks that look like elephants' feet, line paths that precisely intersect fertile vegetable beds. In the Sun King's day, the late 1600s, his garden director, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie, insisted that fifty varieties of pears be grown. Today forty-nine continue to be cultivated -- the trees sculpted, of course, into rigidly artificial postures.

On the rainy October afternoon we visited, tasting stations in tents offered freshly harvested fruits and vegetables of the ages. In a far corner of the property, in a makeshift bistro fashioned out of sailcloth, next to caves full of drying racks and ripening fruit, a horticulture student stirred the soup du jour, seventeenth-century pumpkin, in a steaming vat.

The French do insist, it seems, that their plant life be well behaved. Tidiness is mandatory, orderliness essential. But oh, how supreme are the requirements for the table! Even if too fragile to be shipped, too delicate to withstand being displayed in the market, too susceptible to disease to be grown commercially, a variety of, for instance, radish will be esteemed for its uniqueness, whether that has to do with shade of pink or degree of crunch. Just step into the garden to experience, and relish, the Gallic appreciation of nuance.

Hatsy Shields writes regularly on travel, horticulture, and the arts, and tends her own vegetable patch north of Boston.

Photos by J.B. Leroux/Hoa-Qui/Photo Researchers, Inc.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Fresh and French; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 48 - 52.