August 30 is the feast day of Saint Fiacre, a seventh-century Irish monk who became the patron saint of French gardeners. Throughout August, you can remember this green-fingered saint by visiting two famous château potagers in the Loire Valley, Rivau and Valmer.
In the grounds of the Château de Rivau, art historian and owner, Patricia Laigneau, has created 16 themed gardens, many of which have a fairy-tale storyline, including a labyrinth dedicated to ‘Alice in Rivau’ and the garden of Princess Rapunzel.
The most recent addition, the ‘Jardin du Papillon’, is a Zen-spirited area which spotlights sustainability, featuring recycled ardoise roof slates and drought-resistant plants.
The Potager de Gargantua is the first garden that you encounter when you arrive at Rivau, and it is described by Mme Laigneau as ‘an appetiser’. It commemorates the work of Rivau neighbour, the satirical writer Rabelais born at Chinon sometime between 1483 to 1494, and particularly his tale of the food-loving giants in Gargantua et Pantagruel.
Varieties on offer
The potager boasts a festin pantagruélique (gargantuan feast) of gigantic and strange vegetables, particularly of the squash and pumpkin family, of which 43 different varieties are grown.
You’ll encounter everything from the edible types, such as butternut squash ‘Sucrine du Berry’, on through famous old cultivars of pumpkin, including ‘Rouge d’Etampes’, ‘Bleu de Hongrie’, ‘Gros Jaune de Paris’ with weird, warty ‘Marina di Chioggia’, before arriving at the more ornamental winter squashes like ‘Yugoslavian Finger’ and ‘Turk’s turbans’.
Rivau initiated a heritage vegetable sharing scheme with partner gardens in 2013 and is proud to grow and harvest seed of French bean ‘Barangeonnier’, swede ‘Jaune de Saint-Marc’, cannelloni bean ‘Flageolet de Touraine’, as well as the winter squash ‘Citrouille de Touraine’.
In the two restaurants, you can sample organic vegetables from the potager, the Rivau farm, and local organic producers.
Vegetarian food – particularly soups created using ancient pumpkin varieties – is a speciality. Take part in one of the balades de dégustation, a walk around the potager every Wednesday in August leaving at 15.30.
The tour will help you understand the useful properties of all the plants you encounter, as well as encouraging you to pick your own for a workshop that focuses on plant use in beverages.
The gardens are open every day in August from 10:00 to 19:00 (last entry 45 mins before closing). Adults €12, children between 5 and 18, €7.50, special rates for family groups. There are audio guides available in English at €3.50, and all tickets may be purchased online.
The Conservation Potager at the Château de Valmer was created by owner and garden designer, Alix de Saint Venant.
The most recent generation of the Saint Venants – the family that has owned the château since the nineteenth century – is represented by Alix’s son, Jean de Saint Venant, who is now in charge of the successful modernisation of the vineyards, famous for their production of Vouvray wines.
Although there are eight terraces laid out in a Renaissance or 17th-century Florentine style, Alix de Saint Venant has chosen to make the one-hectare potager – a traditional four-square pattern based on a 15th-century design – the main attraction for the garden visitor.
From the High Terrace, where you can enjoy breathtaking views over the 35 hectares of vineyard that embrace the château and its grounds, you descend gradually to a magnificent eighteenth-century double staircase, with its statue of Saint Fiacre, that opens out onto the massive walled kitchen garden.
The potager was begun in 2001 and since its creation has assumed a special role in the promotion and preservation of heritage vegetable varieties – very important for their ability to tolerate local climatic conditions – with about 900 different types planted out each year.
Following this theme, since 2014 a part of the potager has been given over to a collection of grape varieties important to the Loire Valley. The square that houses the white grape cultivars is planted within a necklace of David Austin’s yellow rose, ‘The Poet’s Wife’, while the red wine cultivars are circled with red ‘Papa Meilland’.
This association emphasises that much importance has been placed on ornamental plants in this garden, both for their ability to attract pollinators and repel insects, but also for that special something they add to our cuisine.
Consequently, you will find the useful flowers and seeds of daylily, nigella, and nasturtium rubbing shoulders with the cabbages.
To learn more about these associations, participate in the balade ‘gustative’, a tour of the potager which starts at 14.30 each day the garden is open (price included in entry ticket to the whole garden).
Opening times at Valmer
The gardens at Valmer are open in August, from Wednesday to Sunday, 14:00 to 20:00 (ticket office closes at 19.00). Special openings on Tuesday 15, and again on Sunday 27 August from 10:00 to 18:00 to celebrate Saint Fiacre’s feast day.
Price: €12 adults; children 11 to 18 years €8; reduced rate for students/disabled/large families, etc., €10. Free to members of the Royal Horticultural society. Information on the château and its grounds is available in English.
Open gardens/Jardins Ouverts, the Limousin-based Anglo-French association which exists to raise money for charity by opening private gardens in France, is looking for four new people to join their committee. The committee is responsible for the day-to-day management of the association.
Sue Lambert tells The Connexion: “We are particularly looking for one or more bilingual people who have experience in publicity or media to help us make our name more generally known throughout France. New coordinators are most welcome.”
“Being a coordinator involves seeking out new garden openers within travelling distance of your home, or visiting people recommended by us and then maintaining contact via email or telephone.
To keep the association fresh and vibrant we are constantly looking for new people to open their gardens on our behalf – everyone is a volunteer in this association.”
If you are interested in playing an active part, you can contact Sue at email@example.com to learn more.