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A Kitchen Garden Fit for a King

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Le Potager du Roi at the palace of Louis IV at Versailles is a fruit and vegetable paradise of royal proportions.

10/25/2001
A Kitchen Garden Fit for a King

Loving abundance and variety as I do, I adore the luxuriance of kitchen gardens, replete with both new and ancient fruit and vegetable varieties selected for perfect flavor, ripe and ready to fire the imagination of the cook. But for all the huge kitchen gardens I myself have made, I could never have conceived of one as splendid as Le Potager du Roi, the King's kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles. Of course, I didn't have Louis XIV as a patron, nor legions of consummately skilled gardeners laboring at my behest.

But Jean-Baptiste Le Quintinie (see Photo 1 below) did. Trained as a lawyer, this fanatic of food gardens established a reputation for designing and managing the most extraordinary kitchen gardens that the estates of Paris had ever known. When Louis the XIV (the Sun King) decided he needed a kitchen garden worthy of his new palace at Versailles, he hired Quintinie to design and oversee its installation in 1670.

Quintinie originally wanted to lay out this grand garden on a piece of relatively fertile ground at some distance from the palace. But the king, a great amateur of gardens, wanted his vegetable kingdom close at hand where he could enjoy and inspect it at will and leisure. Therefore, Quintinie's workers started draining a boggy area close to the palace known as the Stinking Swamps. It was, in the words of Quintinie, a piece of ground "de la nature de celles qu'on voudrait ne trouver nulle part",--"of a sort you would never want to find anywhere."

Nature notwithstanding, the king was paying the bills here. So in 1678 work began in earnest, with the majority of the planned gardens being completed by 1683. The mucky soil was replaced with the good earth of the surrounding hills, trundled to the royal garden on an ingenious, Rube Goldberg sort of machine devised for the purpose. The beds were further amended with mountains of manure from the royal stables.

The gardens consisted of (and remain so today) a central courtyard surrounding a large water reservoir with fountain (fed by the drains throughout the 22+acre site) surrounded by 29 walled gardens consisting of collections of fruit trees, vegetables, and small fruits. The central court comprises 16 carres or rectangular beds of vegetables, each surrounded by fruit trees and surmounted by a grand flowering terrace from which the king could enjoy a theatrical view of his vegetable kingdom.

Quintinie's plan for the garden reads like a recipe for paradise. "Melonerrie with rows of vining fruits...Rows of salad herbs with espaliers of peaches and nectarines...Figs grown as shrubs and as espaliers...Strawberries with early cherries...Garden for large vegetables...Small flower garden..." In all, over 5,000 fruit trees form the backbone of this extravaganza, and all these trees are pruned and trained in the highly elaborate geometric forms and espaliers that are the very definition of French fruit culture even today.

This highly interventionist method of growing tree fruits, by way of severe pruning and training into mostly planar geometric shapes, had its naissance with Quintinie, who published a comprehensive tome on the subject which is still in print and studied by French fruit growers today. He summarized his method of severely pruning young trees, which resulted in retarding their fruition for several to many years, but thereafter in a heavier and longer fruition, in the following priceless quote:"Tardez vos jouissances pour jouir plus fort et plus longtemps."

To translate this pearl of wisdom, I need to first broach the issue of how to both delicately and accurately translate the meaning of "jouissances and jouir. Unfortunately, I can't think of a delicate way of translating this quote in all its grandeur. "Jouissances" means, well, "orgasms," to put it bluntly but accurately, and has a second, weaker meaning that can best--but not entirely accurately--translated as "enjoyments". "Jouir" of course, is the corresponding verb. So Quintinie's paragon of double meaning translates as, "Delay your orgasms in order to climax more strongly and for a longer time." What can I say? He was French!

Today, the king's kitchen garden remains remarkably true to Quintinie's original vision, although a few small changes have been made, mostly by subsequent tenants of Versailles. The herb garden, for instance, has been restored exactingly according to Quintinie's original specifications of the 40 herbs he deemed essential to the royal salads.

The thousands of fruit trees trained in various espalier forms form a stunning framework of elaborate, ornamental living fences throughout the gardens that is beautiful to view even in winter. It's difficult for me to choose the most beautiful season to see them. Perhaps it's spring, when blossoms ornament the stalwart trellis of the ancient gnarled branches in an evanescent frippery of white and pink. Some of these trees, in spite of their height being restricted by the practices of espalier, have attained an awesome girth (See Photo 2 below).

The garden serves as learning laboratory to an affiliated horticultural landscape school. And if you wander about, you'll come upon a hidden-away walled quadrant which is home to a joyous abandon of students' garden patches, in glorious anarchic contrast to all the rigidly designed parterres of the king. Here, students of the horticultural school tend their own vegetables, flowers, and well, herbs (see Photo 3 below) I'm not sure whether hemp, a very useful plant much appreciated in France, where it is made not only into rope, but also into wine, soap, clothing, was part of Quintinie's original program. When I asked the friendly instructor working nearby, he just smiled and shrugged. "It's a students' garden," he said.

The vegetable production in the King's kitchen garden is spectacular in both quantity and variety. Old and new varieties are grown side by side, in the quick and tightly organized progression that is so characteristic of the French kitchen garden. Scarcely has one crop been pulled from the ground than transplants for the next are already in place. You can sample the royal produce on Wednesdays and Fridays at the boutique associated with the garden at 4 rue Hardy. The boutique itself, exclusive of fresh produce, is open year round Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 12:30 and from 2:00 to 5:00. It is open on weekends from 10:00 to 6:00 from April through October only.

In the relatively mild climate here (around a US Zone 7), production continues year-round with the ubiquitous leeks (Number One staple of the French kitchen garden), winter salads such as the escaroles pictured (see Photo 4 below) under their white plastic blanching caps, and root crops, including salsify. Winter squash, beets, cabbages, and many other vegetables are held in root cellars over the winter. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the temperature manipulations at Versailles, strawberries, melons, peas, peaches, figs, and other delicacies are coaxed to prematurity in cold frames and greenhouses.

The Potager du Roi can be visited every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October. Entry is 30 FF on weekdays; 40 FF on weekends and holidays; 20 FF for students and children under 18. Group visits for a maximum of 30 can be arranged by reservation and may be organized thematically. The garden is located at 10 rue du Marechal Joffre, about a 10-minute walk south of the chateau. Parking is in the Place de la Cathedrale Saint Louis. For more information or group reservations, call (011.33.1)39.24.62.62 or email f.abergel@versailles-ecole.paysage.fr.


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Click below for more pictures from this garden:


picture 1

picture 2

picture 3

picture 4

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