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The French potager is 'so much more than a kitchen garden'

A brief history of the French potager by Michael Delahaye and how his wife's 20th century potager matched a long-forgotten one on the same site

The beginnings of the “traditional” French potager were modest. It was a plot of land that provided essentials for le potage, a thick vegetable soup.

The first potagers were tied to monasteries but from the earliest days it was the medieval masses who had most need of a small plot to cultivate.

Without anything resembling a welfare state, the ability to grow one’s own vegetables – particularly those such as onions that could be stored for the winter – was a godsend.

“Vivre en autarcie” – to be self-sufficient – was every peasant’s dream. As a bonus, any surplus could be bartered or sold at market.

The early domestic potager was often what in English would be called an allotment, a distance from the house. Inhabitants of the bastides in south west France - the “new towns” of the Middle Ages – were given two plots: one in the village to build their houses on; the other, just outside the walls, to grow produce.

Although the potager started out as a vegetable patch, flowers were soon introduced – as much for practical as aesthetic reasons: to control bugs.

Marigolds keep aphids at bay, while roses and nasturtiums attract them and so were – and still are – “sacrificial plants” to draw the little critters away from the vegetables.

But by the 16th century, the utilitarian potager had been hijacked by the nobility

During the gardening craze of the French Renaissance, it became a feast for the eye, not the stomach: le potager décoratif.

Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley – the poster child for potagers the world over – raised the humble kitchen garden to the level of art, with cabbages, leeks, beetroots and carrot tops all contributing to the designer’s palette.

In the centuries-long history of the potager, one man deserves special mention: Félix Delahaye* (no relation, so far as I know). Born on a farm in Normandy in 1767, he was barely literate but, by dint of diligence and skill, he ended up as head gardener to the Empress Josephine.

That, though, is only part of his claim to fame. From 1791 to 1793, Félix was a member of Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition to the Antipodes in search of missing explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse.

His job was to help the botanists, les savants, to collect seeds and plants and look after them on board ship. In keeping with his low status, he ate and slept with the crew, but he had an additional duty – which would have consequences two centuries later.

One of the challenges of global expeditions was securing regular supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Foreign ports could not always be relied on when European nations were at constant war with each other and, along with their far-flung dependencies, forming ever-shifting alliances. A ship could turn up in what had been a friendly port when it left, only to find it was now under enemy control.

One solution was to plant a potager on a patch of unclaimed land on the journey out, in the hope of benefiting from its produce on the way back. It could also help feed later explorers passing the same way.

So, when d’Entrecasteaux’s ships dropped anchor off the south-eastern corner of Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania) in April 1792, Delahaye busied himself establishing a potager, encouraged perhaps by a climate similar to that of his native Normandy.

Although a modest affair measuring about nine metres by seven and comprising four beds, it took three men three days to dig and seed a selection of European vegetables: celery, chervil, chicory, cabbage, cress, romaine lettuce, turnips, white onions, radish, sorrel, peas, black salsify and potatoes.

It was hoped that the potager might also be of use to the local indigenous people – but by the time Félix and the expedition’s members returned the next year, it was in a parlous state.

Perhaps it was the soil, or a lack of water … or that seeds had been sown at the wrong time.

Yet Félix’s failure would become an unlikely source of triumph when, in 2003, it was announced that his long lost potager – an area of roughly the right dimensions, outlined with large stones – had been rediscovered.

For environmentalists, the news couldn’t have come at a better time: they were fighting to protect this corner of Tasmania from logging.

The state government had little choice but to grant the area heritage status – and, with it, protection.

Thus, having failed as an 18th century expedition gardener, Félix succeeded – obliquely and posthumously – as a 21st-century conservationist.

Three years later, a joint French Australian archaeological team, employing soil analysis and geophysical imaging, concluded that the remains “cannot be the French garden of Delahaye” but “may instead relate to early 20th century activity”.

Félix’s actual potager is probably long buried, they concluded. Even so, the area retained its heritage status.

Gardens are ephemeral. Left unattended, they sink back into the soil or fall victim to horticultural fashion, as happened to the potager at Villandry

What visitors see today is a 1920s “re-imagining” of the original, which was lost forever in the 1800s when the chateau’s gardens were landscaped as a neo-classical parc à l’anglaise.

On rare occasions and by means bordering on the occult, an ancient garden can find its way back from oblivion. Coincidentally, one such garden is also a “Delahaye potager”.

In the 1990s, my wife and I lived in Pujols, Lot-et-Garonne, originally a fortified Roman look-out on the road between Agen and Périgueux.

Our house was perched on the medieval ramparts. When a parcel of land next door – barely 80 square metres, featureless and used for decades as an animal enclosure – came up for sale, we jumped at the chance.

About that time, the village baker, Monsieur Bret, set about gentrifying the village, paving its alleyways with granite setts he had somehow acquired from a nearby commune.

A few dozen were left over and, since they were going free, Mme Delahaye decided to lay out a classic French potagerun petit Villandry – on our newly acquired plot, using the lumps of granite to edge the beds.

As an authentic finishing touch, she followed the centuries-old tradition, un coin pour accueillir le coing, and planted a quince tree in the corner.

This Delahaye potager attracted the attention of the locals, as it produced a prodigious quantity of tomatoes, probably due to the contributions of its former animal occupants – and a trailer-load of donkey dung.

A few months later, the tourism office asked me to put together a pamphlet on the history of the village for anglophone visitors. Among the archive material it provided was a hand-drawn plan, dated around 1750.

There, on that part of the ramparts where my wife created her potager, was a symmetrical garden of almost identical design, as if the land had retained a topographical memory. It had lain beneath the surface for two and a half centuries, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Ramparts seem to attract the supernatural. Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, famously observing: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Had he been a gardener, he might have replaced ‘earth’ with ‘manure-enriched compost’.

*Thanks to Dr Edward Duyker and Dr Jean-Christophe Galipaud for their academic work on Félix Delahaye.

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