When Louisa brought me peaches and zucchini from Le Potager du Roi in Versailles, her birthday gift was really twofold — delicious produce to enjoy now, and the promise of a fascinating new place to discover later. And so it is that on a bright and sunny day last week, my parents and I took a little trip to Versailles, snubbed the castle and walked straight on to the Potager.
Le Potager du Roi — the King’s Vegetable Garden — was built by Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie between 1678 and 1683. A few years before, La Quintinie had been appointed by Louis XIV as the Director of All Royal Fruit and Vegetable Gardens, and part of his mission was to build a vegetable garden just South of the Château de Versailles, to accommodate the court’s needs for fresh produce. For this purpose he was given nine hectares (about 1,000,000 square feet) of swamps, which he dried out and structured into a large central square with a fountain and thirty smaller gardens all around, in which he proceeded to plant a wide variety of produce, experimenting and inventing a few horticultural techniques along the way.
More than three centuries later, his Potager would still do him proud. It is just a bit smaller — some elements have disappeared or been replaced — but it is still planted with more than 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables maintained by the students from the school of horticulture next door, and it produces over 70 tons of produce every year.
There were no guided visits that day (only on weekends and holidays) but we didn’t mind and we just walked around with our little maps and the entire garden to ourselves (there was just the one couple, kissing under an apple tree). Pumpkins, different varieties of eggplant (this one is called “Easter egg”), peppers, tomatoes (including tomates cerises and my dear coeurs de boeuf), aromatic herbs, zucchini, asparagus and peaches, but mostly apples (some with tattoos) and pears everywhere, the pear trees aesthetically (and probably somewhat painfully) arranged in espaliers.
There were flowers too, beautiful sunflowers in particular, but my favorite part was the large patch of strawberry plants featuring dozens of heirloom or modern varieties. Most of them were heavy with ripe and bright fruit, but since this isn’t a pick-your-own kind of garden, I really had to reason with myself not to pop a few into my mouth, and simply delight in the pretty sight. Oh, and another favorite is when I found out that they actually grow butter from trees *. Cool, huh?
There is a small boutique from which you can buy fruit and vegetables from the Potager, jams and juices, as well as books for the enthusiastic gardener. Nothing in the selection of produce that day made my heart swoon, but if Louisa’s gifts are anything to go by it may very well be a matter of luck or season.
(And you can read Louisa’s own account here!)
* OK, not really: the Beurré Superfin is one of the many pear varieties that are called Beurré something — Beurré d’Anjou, Beurré Clergeau, Beurré Hardy, etc.
Le Potager du Roi
10 rue du Maréchal Joffre
01 39 24 62 62