Walk the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil today and clues still abound to the area’s former fame in an industry more usually associated with the countryside.
“Rue Girardot, initiateur de la culture fruitière à Montreuil au XVIIième siècle” reads a street sign, named after the knight and musketeer Etienne Girardot, who became a gardener and started a fruit-growing tradition here that would last almost four centuries.
The road gives on to Rue de Rosny, the axis that links Low Montreuil to High Montreuil, where a row of traditional houses offers further insight. Once belonging to local horticulturalists, one of the properties still discreetly sports a pulley.
On the plateau of High Montreuil, 37 hectares of gardens are all that remain of the formerly thriving culture covering 720 of the village’s 930 hectares.
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As early as 1650, farmers built enclosures here in which they experimented with techniques for growing fruits more typical of warmer climates – especially peaches.
These walls, called murs à pêches, were constructed and positioned to capture as much sunlight as possible by day and release warmth at night. The walls also protected the crop from wind.
This set-up created microclimates whose temperatures were up to 12C above that of the surroundings. By 1750, 600 of Montreuil’s 800 families were cultivating peaches.
“It was quite an expensive business,” says Jacques Fantini, who, for more than 20 years, restored such walls.
Postcards of Montreuil in the early 20th century show a labyrinth of 300km of murs à pêches. As both sides of the walls were used, some information sources cite 600km.
At its height, Montreuil produced 12 million peaches a year, of more than 400 differnt varieties.
Emile Zola mentioned Montreuil’s peaches and the area’s fruit starred at the 1900 World Exhibition. Even Walt Disney visited the murs à pêches.
Montreuil had become a brand.
The reason why this culture boomed east of Paris was twofold: Montreuil’s geography and its geology. At the time, it was hard to condition and transport fruit over large distances.
Since the royal court was installed in Vincennes, Paris had become a large and wealthy market. Fruit was a luxury item and its high sale price justified the investment in walls and labour.
The walls themselves were covered with a thick layer of plaster, made from gypsum, which captured the heat of the sunlight. No surprise, then, to learn that further down the road was a gypsum quarry.
Today, the peaceful greenery of Parc des Beaumonts makes it easy to forget this was once a place of noisy activity.
Besides well-oriented hills and abundant gypsum, Montreuil’s plateau also had several watercourses: large quantities of water are crucial in developing an agricultural industry.
The Impasse du Gobétue takes its name from one such creek. In rapidly urbanising Montreuil, this dead end is an oasis of greenery and tranquillity where Mr Fantini, who has lived here all his life, remembers his mother washing their clothes.
The steady decline of Montreuil’s fruit industry meant that by the 1990s, the flourishing orchards and impeccably maintained allotment gardens had decayed into wastelands and the soil was heavily polluted.
Several associations were formed to protect Montreuil’s heritage. One such, Murs à Pêches (MAP), dates from 1994 and has so far managed to save 8.5 hectares of enclosures.
The real gem is the garden of Patrick Fontaine, which has been lauded as the most beautiful in Ile-de-France and showcases 40 shapes of trained trees.
“It kills me,” he says of the effort needed to maintain the plot, for which he has been unable to find a successor.
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Working on Montreuil’s fruit trees has never been easy, though.
Families used to get up between 3:00 and 4:00 to start work. At night, when heavy rain or hail fell, they covered the trees with blankets.
Every second fruit was removed for the remaining fruits to grow bigger, and fruit-growers weighed and brushed every single peach.
Each year, the women washed the linen bands which held the trees to the walls, and also disinfected the trees.
The fruit-growers wrapped every growing fruit in a paper bag.
In winter, while the men cleaned up the garden and trained the trees, women and children prepared 10,000 of these bags.
The local clay soil also proved hard work. In summer, it becomes almost watertight, needing constant shuffling.
Today, many of these local horticultural traditions are still respected, and growers can find out more at the nearby Jardin-Ecole.
It was founded in 1921 by Montreuil’s society of horticulturists to educate Montreuil’s farmers and to provide a place for experimenting with new techniques.
The school taught pupils how to train and graft trees. To maximise efficiency, they trained their trees in a variety of shapes, experimenting with candelabra, cross and fan forms, as well as a goblet, palm, spindle and double U. The school’s garden still has a candelabra-shaped pear tree dating from 1920.
The former classroom now houses an interesting museum displaying several devices which were invented specifically for the horticulturists, as well as medals and prizes.
It also touches on how Montreuil peaches became renowned for the distinctive marks made on them.
The paper bags placed over each fruit in June prevented them from changing colour in sunlight.
When the bag was removed, a paper stencil was applied with gelatine. The previously covered peach coloured more than a naturally grown fruit, so stencilling it while still pale made the design stand out splendidly.
As well as helping fruit to look good, bagging also protected it from pests and bad weather.
It allowed the skins of Montreuil’s crop to stay delicate, which made them even more palatable.
In the late 1990s, ethnologist Jacques Brunet interviewed the last descendants of the horticultural families.
Many families originated from internal migrants who had moved to Montreuil to work as day labourers.
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None of the interviewees, all of whom were of retirement age, showed any appetite to do the same gruelling job a second time around.
“We did not have the right to be ill,” said one 96-year-old. “As a young girl, I witnessed my parents going to the gardens in the cold and the rain, even when they had flu.”
Downhill from the orchards, 3 Rue Danton formerly belonged to one of these families, the Savards. In its attic, Mr Brunet discovered 400 negatives.
This collection of photographs is the only one illustrating Montreuil’s horticultural industry before 1914 and now belongs to the nearby museum.
Until the 1960s, Montreuil’s society of horticulturists was based in the building, which had a large garden.
Today, an apartment block stands beside the property and its narrow drive, while the house accommodates an association for the homeless.
Meanwhile, uphill and behind the orchards runs Rue de Saint-Antoine.
Here, although the ancient walls have been preserved, they are in dire condition. Since the 1950s, travellers have lived in the enclosures, often making holes in the walls through which to cram trailers.
Number 60, however, is designated a jardin remarquable. After Montreuil’s farmers could no longer compete with peaches, apples and pears, they turned to cultivating flowers instead.
Montreuil’s last horticulturist, Geneviève Pouplier, grew flowers here until 2003.
A sequence of maps detailing the evolution of the enclosures shows that by 1936 the culture was already past its peak. Railways had made peaches from the Mediterranean much cheaper, and greenhouses proved more efficient than walls.
The last blow came in 1969, when Paris’s main fruit and vegetable market moved from Les Halles.
For Montreuil’s fruit growers, who traditionally got up before dawn to travel the five miles into Paris to sell their produce, the market’s move to Rungis, almost 10 miles away, was devastating.
These days you can still buy peaches in Montreuil at the local supermarket. They are foreign imports and are sold by the kilo.
These peaches might not be large and crimson red as Montreuil’s Grosse Mignonne.
Nor do they look like the Téton de Vénus, with its pointed nipple, yellowish skin and white flesh.
But they are cheap.
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