garden tales from a Brit abroad
When Louis XIV decided in 1678 that he wanted a potager (kitchen garden) near his palace in Versailles, where he could bring visitors to admire the abundant produce, the site chosen was unpromising marshland, known as l’étang puant, or the stinking pond. Five years of work and perhaps a million francs later, the plot had been drained and new fertile soil brought in by means of an ingenious machine from the nearby Satory hills.
Master architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart constructed imposing walls and terraces on the site. Then royal gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie laid out the potager in a classically geometric pattern, with a grand circular fountain surrounded by 16 square vegetable beds. Arranged around this central area were 29 separate fruit tree gardens. A gilded gate provided access directly from the palace gardens.
The royal gardeners experimented with new varieties of fruit and vegetables, and the latest flavours were much discussed at court. In 1696, Mme de Sévigné was to write that “the craze for peas shows no sign of abating; the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again; for the last four days these have been our princes’ only topics of conversation.”
Presided over by the eighteenth century Saint Louis cathedral, the garden is today part of the National School of Landscape Architecture, and remains recognisably the potager created for the Sun King.
Last weekend was a celebration of the Saveurs du Potager (“Flavours of the Kitchen Garden”), with guided tours, tasting games for children, stalls selling fruit and vegetables from the gardens and artisanal produce, and displays of traditional juice pressing and bee-keeping.
The gardens are lovely, with some 5000 trained pear and apple trees providing beautiful divisions between the various sections. There were late summer perennials in full flower, a fun maze made of sweetcorn and sunflowers for the kids, and much evidence of a respect for wildlife, from this lovely insect house to a sign explaining that a path was closed off because of the presence of a solitary bee colony.
Be warned that the potager is not primped and perfect like the one at Villandry: there is evidence of work-in-progress by the students who today get to practise in the plots; some of the areas were uncultivated or rather untidy; while fat geese honked and charged around rather appealingly in one space at the back. But it was still a good place to visit on a warm October day, and a chance to mark the end of summer harvests and the arrival of chill autumn.