Here I was, just me and the flies, ferreting around in the middle of a blooming great big herd of communal dustbins, completely lost!
My French friend, Audrey, had told me about a wonderful potager that was owned by a man named Jean-Luc. “He plants vegetables for all seasons and sells the excess. You must go and look – his haricot verts
at the moment!”
Eventually brow-beaten by her insistence, and slightly intrigued to find out what a formidableharicot vert
looked like, I agreed to go. Actually I was going to take my husband, Jack, with me, but since his love for vegetables extends to a tin of Heinz baked beans and not much further, there seemed little point in me trying to persuade him.
Living in a remote part of France has countless charms, but one of its constant challenges is how difficult the local accent is to understand. Audrey had mentioned that the potager was close to the church. Well, I arrived in what I considered
to be the right place, and could see the steeple close by, but nothing else that hinted at a vegetable patch – only dustbins. Refuse seemed to be a far cry from the promised greens. It seemed I’d misunderstood again.
Just as I was about to give it up as a bad job I spotted a rickety-looking gate stuck in the hedge beyond, ahah
– there it was!
Feeling moderately intrepid and a little worried that the gate might collapse as I yanked it open, I cautiously stepped into the unknown. Audrey is usually understated about things and this was another example of her restraint. I’d entered a perfectly concealed garden stuffed full of vegetables. And it was huge.
In front of me masses of root crops arranged in orderly lines were bursting out of the soil. Some had ferny green topknots and others a purple twist – I knew what they would be. But there were another lot that were complete strangers, lumpy and warty, these chaps instantly spiked my interest.
Then I spotted the tomatoes. Actually it was hard to miss them, they looked like a forest. Every plant was supported by a neatly-cut stake and the whole plantation was sheltered from the hot sun by a netting canopy. I craned my neck to see beyond this dense crop – amazingly there was even more produce languishing in the hot sun, but I couldn’t distinguish what it might be from my vantage point.
Taking a couple more tentative steps forward, I saw a collection of remarkable buildings. Remarkable, because they appeared to have been constructed from a variety of old bits of wood, metal and plastic sheeting. The residents of the Calais “jongle
” might consider them haphazard, but they looked strong enough to stand up to most of the elements.
So far the place seemed to be deserted, I really wasn’t quite sure what to do. Feeling somewhat self-conscious because I’d only met him once before, I squeaked a feeble, “Bonjour
, Jean-Luc.” Nothing! I tried again, a little louder this time. This had the desired effect. The door of one of the sheds was flung open and out through a drape of old stripy bed sheet came monsieur
, looking just as I remembered him.
A stout chap, he was wearing his well-used gardening kit, and the same baseball cap he’d worn last time I’d seen him. It was obviously a favourite and a very sensible choice of headwear for the scorching afternoon sun. Jean-Luc’s chubby face broke into a merry smile as he saw me and came over to perform the obligatory French greeting of one-too-many kisses. This left me just a little bit sticky on the cheeks. It was, after all, a hot day.
Jean-Luc got straight down to business. (He doesn’t speak a word of English so I’ll spare you the translation.) “So, Beth, what shall I get you?”
This stumped me somewhat because aside from the essential haricot verts
, I didn’t have a mental shopping list prepared. “Well I’m not too sure. Do you have time to show me what you grow here?”
It seems I had said the right thing. Jean-Luc beamed, “But of course. Come with me – everything I grow here is beeo!
As I was trying to work out his French version of bio, I felt a light touch on my ankle. I looked down to see a beautiful tabby-white cat, tail in the air, preparing to wind its way around my legs.
“This is Millie, I think she likes you.”
Immediately enchanted by this delicate creature I replied “Oh, Jean-Luc, she’s lovely, is she yours?”
He shrugged his burly shoulders indulgently. “She lives here and follows me everywhere – she is my gardening companion. Now come this way,” he said, smiling.
The next hour was spent in a leafy haven filled with bulbs and tubers, pods and fronds , beans and fruits. Deeply green peppers with their glossy red counterparts drooped heavily on their stems. Purple-black aubergines shone brightly, the white ones too – veritable stars in this galaxy of lustrous vegetables. Courgettes, in two colours – I’d never seen a white variety and I told him so. Quick as a flash one was removed for me to take home and try.
I stopped, my senses suddenly arrested by the pungent aromas of herbs. “Gosh, Jean-Luc, you grow herbs here as well?”
“Yes, of course
,” he replied, puffing out his chest, “come and look.”
We walked down another perfectly kept, earth path to find an assortment of pots filled with astonishingly healthy aromatic plants. Seeing my enthusiasm, with a twinkle in his eye, Jean-Luc plucked a leaf off the closest herb and offered it to me. “Goût, goût!
” (Taste, taste!) he insisted eagerly. This was perfect because although some of the herb names translate very easily such as Basil to Basilic
and Parsely to Persil
, I was lost without a trace when it came to Tarragon – Estragon
and Chevil – Cerfeuil.
I would be guided by taste instead.
The basil leaf I had been given zinged off my palate in a riot of fresh flavours. The rosemary had an intensity I’d never tasted before, and the parsley was as gentle as could be. As I crunched or sniffed my way through several offerings I felt as a sommelier might when sampling fine wines. Jean-Luc’s expression was a study of delight as I vainly sought adequate words to express my appreciation at my first herb garden tasting session. He nodded knowingly, “Yes,” he said, “they are all beeo!”
We ambled to another section, I was amazed by how well-kept it all was and commented that it must be very hard to maintain. His charming reply was simple. It was one we have heard so many times before from the locals. “It is my passion.”
Jean-Luc explained that he worked for the local apple producer. He grafted apple trees, an exacting skill I have admired in others but never attempted. He bought his vegetable plot 20 years before and had worked there every day since. Looking around at this magnificent expanse of produce I wasn’t surprised by his words. It was pristine.
Next we strolled amongst the forest of tomatoes; I’ve never seen so many varieties. There were Russian ones, Chinese beauties, and some enormous types that hung pendulously from their bushels, just waiting for the moment to provide gastronomic pleasure for some lucky diner. Jean-Luc walked ahead. Every now and again he would disappear between the lines. Then his head would pop up unexpectedly between leafy stems as he found yet another exotic type he’d experimented with.
I became so wrapped up in this red and green world of assorted toms that, at one point, I lost him completely. I had the fright of my life when a hand full of tomato was thrust through a bushel right under my nose. “Voila!
” Cried a muffled voice from behind a cluster of leaves. It seemed that Jean-Luc had found the Bavarian special he’d temporarily mislaid. That was the type he thought Jack would love. H’m…I wasn’t so sure, but nodded enthusiastically anyway. Meeting me at the end of the row he held out yet another for me to try.
“This is a black tomato,” he said conspiratorially. Only it wasn’t.
“Oh, right. It looks very red to me.”
It is definitely black.”
“Ah, then perhaps it’s the name of the variety?” I asked hopefully.
Here is the same family but it is the red variety.” With that he produced another, which to my inexperienced eye looked exactly the same. There are times in life when it’s more sensible to concede the point rather than argue it, and this seemed to be one of them.
“Ah yes,” I replied, scrutinizing the identical twins with appropriate levels of appreciation, “now I see it. There is definitely black in this one.”
Jean-Luc’s face crinkled up into a joyous smile, “It’s marvellous isn’t it? And it tastes superb, you must try.”
Before I could refuse he whipped out his pruning knife and cut both tomatoes into segments. The fact that they were both the size of footballs didn’t seem to bother him at all. Nor did the fact that by now I’d consumed a barrel load of samples and my stomach was beginning to gurgle noisily. He would not be denied the opportunity to treat me to his delicacies. Ignoring my pathetic pleas of refusal he cried, “Goût, goût!
Suffocating an accidental tiny belch I took a hunk of each and stuffed them in. To my surprise I found that he was absolutely right. They tasted completely different and were fruitily delicious.
,” he cried, “Different and beeo!
” he chuckled, plunging a digit into the innards of his juicy black tom to demonstrate its natural succulence.
Back in the main part of the garden I asked if he kept any flowers.
“Just a few” was the reply. “Viens, viens
,” (Come, come) he said, trotting off to another area. (This man spoke mainly in duplicate.) I followed him around the edge of a particularly boisterous hedge of haricot verts
and there, under the backdrop of the village church, was a simply stunning collection of blooms.
“Oh my!” I gasped, “these are quite amazing.” Dahlias, roses, hibiscus and many others lit up the side of the potager like multi-coloured fireworks at night. They were in mint condition and looked simply gorgeous. But Jean-Luc wasn’t quite finished. I liked flowers? Then I must see more.
We marched up and down several new rows of vegetables ignoring the fruits this time in favour of the exquisite blooms that produce such amazing results. It was a feast of intricate delicacy, why on earth
hadn’t I appreciated such beauty before?
We had been mooching around for over an hour now and I felt that I really ought to let the poor man get on with his weeding. But Jean-Luc seemed to be perfectly happy to continue the tour. We inspected brawny young pumpkins scrumming-down like a rugby union front row amongst their spikey leaves. Baby cucumber sprouted in banana shapes, and a collection of brassicas the like of which I’d never seen before created a stunning colour contrast to the shiny greens. And not a bug in sight. I remarked on this and Jean-Luc gave me a knowing look, I knew what he was going to say.
“I use a special product.”
“Yes!” was the emphatic reply. “Come into my shed and I will show you my things.” In any other circumstances I might have been somewhat disconcerted by this offer, but with Jean-Luc I had no fear, he only had eyes for flora.
Chatting a little louder now to drown the sound of my alarmingly gurgly stomach, we headed back past the ferny-topped carrots, alongside the pungent jungle of heavenly herbs and came to his collection of huts. It was then that I realised what truly extraordinary constructions they were.
Entering the first was like walking into Aladdin’s cave. Only this contained treasures of a different kind. There were seed sachets everywhere. Jean-Luc explained that he regularly rotated his crops and would soon be setting his winter seeds. I was absolutely fascinated by the adventurous selection he had. Aside from the seeds, he had fertilisers and other products – dozens of them, all of which had been made using natural ingredients only.
Amongst the bazaar of fascinating tools and gadgets I spied an old iron container. This was intriguing, I asked what it was. He tapped the top lovingly and opened a rusty door with a grating flourish so I could peep inside. “It is my fire. It keeps me and Millie warm in the winter.” This man was a gem.
We came out and walked into the potting shed next door. It was another gardener’s delight. Here, in a remarkably orderly space, he stored his potatoes and onions. Although my stomach was now telling me to surrender at the thought of more food I reminded myself why I was there. I did actually need some potatoes. I asked if I could buy some.
“But of course,” he replied grabbing a tuber. Fearful that he was going to chop it in half and give me a lump to chew on I put up my hand in refusal, “Oh it looks lovely, not now though thank you. Could I take three kilos please?”
Fortunately he had misread my alarm and proceeded to pile a number into a plastic bag. He picked up an ancient brass weight instrument and showed it to me. “This,” he said in reverent tones, “is my grandfather’s spring balance. It is nearly 100 years old, he used it to weigh his vegetables.
It is completely accurate and very valuable, but I will never sell this.” It was obviously a profoundly important possession for him. I nodded gravely, respectful of the moment.
He hung the plastic bag of spuds on the hook and nodded happily as the needle hovered just over the three kilo mark. He lobbed in another green-eyed nugget for good measure and placed the bag gently on the earth floor. I added to my order with onions and finally remembered to ask for some of his famed haricot verts
. “Don’t worry, I knew you were coming so I prepared some for you.” He pointed towards the awning of another shed and there lay a crate heaving with produce. Aside from the beans I hadn’t asked for any of it, but how could I refuse such wonderful quality veggies?
I thanked him very much and asked how much I owed. “6.50 euros,” was the reply. I stared at the vegetable mountain.
“But that can’t be right,” I stammered.
“Yes, it is a fair price,” he insisted, “Remember, this is my passion I do not grow my vegetables for profit.”
I tried to remonstrate with him but got nowhere at all. With a happy wag of his head he grabbed my crate and bags of goodies and carried them out. As we headed to my car he paused at the water butt which was abundant with very chubby tadpoles and pointed to the slipway he’d made for frogs. This man was certainly in touch with nature.
Finally my visit was at an end. With my car filled with the best legumes I had ever bought in my life, I bade goodbye to my new friend. As I started to drive off Jean-Luc, shouted, “Wait”. Wondering whether I’d left something behind I paused while he retrieved whatever it was.
Moments later he reappeared holding a jam jar. He opened the lid and thrust it into my hand together with a toothpick. “Goût, goût!
” he insisted. Slightly apprehensive as to whether my bulging stomach could cope with another gastronomic onslaught, I dutifully harpooned a hunk of what appeared to be a chunk of cucumber in brine. Instantly my taste buds were assailed by a crazy combination of pickles and herbs. Delighted by the surprisingly delicious taste I chomped one lump, then took another, and asked what it was. “Courgette, garlic and onion and a mixture of my herbs. Can you believe that?”
“Ooh, courgette,” I replied, unable to resist yet another sample, “no I can’t, it’s wonderful.”
“Yes,” he nodded with a gleam in his eye, “the recipe comes from my grandfather and it is a secret
! I normally sell it for four euros a jar but I wanted to give you this one. It is a cadeau
. And remember, all my produce…” I just knew what he was going to say. “They’re beeo!
” With that he disappeared back to his secret garden.
As a postscript to this story I can tell you that on my following visit to his potager, after collecting my order, Jean-Luc showed me a collection of freshly potted herbs. I cooed appropriately and he said, “I know you like herbs so I have prepared some for you.” I was absolutely thrilled.
“Oh Jean-Luc, that’s incredibly kind of you, thank you. And how much do I owe you?”
For a millisecond I detected the faintest expression of hurt, he replied, “Nothing, they are a cadeau!