Gardening

Look for­ward to scrump­tious potato sal­ads by plant­ing Belle de Fon­te­nay tu­bers this month. Sue Bradley dis­cov­ers the ori­gins of this Parisian spe­cial­ity

Living France - - Contents - Sue and John Herring Open Gar­dens mem­bers, Lot

Pre­par­ing for potato salad, plus an Open Gar­den in Lot

For those who know their pota­toes, Belle de Fon­te­nay is among the most de­li­cious salad cul­ti­vars go­ing. Its flat­tened and elon­gated pear-shaped tu­bers have smooth golden skins and flesh that’s pale yel­low, firm and waxy. Its but­tery flavour can be en­joyed when served hot or cold, but some gar­den­ers reckon the taste fur­ther im­proves with stor­ing. Belle de Fon­te­nay is su­perb in potato sal­ads, and larger tu­bers can be baked.

Those fa­mil­iar with Bur­gundy would be for­given for as­sum­ing that this potato takes its name from Fon­te­nay Abbey, a 12th-cen­tury Cis­te­rian monastery in Côte-d’Or, when in fact it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to look fur­ther north to the sub­urbs of Paris for its ori­gins.

What is def­i­nitely known is that Belle de Fon­te­nay was in­tro­duced in France in 1885, and ex­ten­sively grown around the com­mune of Fon­te­nay-sous-Bois, around 9.3km from the city cen­tre, the name roughly trans­lat­ing as ‘the springs un­der the woods’.

Less def­i­nite is the iden­tity of the potato breeder re­spon­si­ble for the cul­ti­var, with some at­tribut­ing it to Hé­nault, who was based at Fon­te­nay-sous-Bois, or Joseph Ri­gault, who came from Groslay, also near Paris.

Ac­cord­ing to plant breeder Charles Valin of Thompson & Mor­gan, the potato is known by a num­ber of names, in­clud­ing Hé­nault and Boulangère, the lat­ter be­cause it was tra­di­tion­ally cooked in bak­ers’ ovens that were still warm af­ter the day’s bread had been re­moved.

While it is a win­ner on the flavour front, ‘Belle de Fon­te­nay’ can be sen­si­tive to dis­eases. In­deed, an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of viruses over many years al­most caused it to be­come ex­tinct. “It was only saved by in vitro meris­tem cul­ture in the 1960s,” says Mr Valin. Ex­perts dif­fer over the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of ‘Belle de Fon­te­nay’: some de­scribe it as ‘early’ or ‘sec­ond early’; Mr Valin says it’s an ‘early main­crop’, while Chris Smith of Pen­nard Plants prefers ‘salad’. Plant­ing time can be any time dur­ing April to mid-May, al­though tu­bers can be put in even ear­lier if the soil has warmed up suf­fi­ciently. Depend­ing on the grow­ing sea­son and the soil, crops should be ready to har­vest af­ter they’ve been grow­ing around 15 weeks, which depend­ing on when they’re put in, means they should be ready to dig in June and July. They will grow larger if left in the ground, al­though they can be­come mis­shapen as they in­crease in size. Be­fore plant­ing, place seed pota­toes in the light for a few weeks to en­cour­age them to shoot, or ‘chit’, to around 3cm (1in) in length. Find a sunny spot in the gar­den, away from frost pock­ets, and dig a trench that’s around 12cm deep. Space tu­bers at around 37cm and cover well. Pro­tect emerg­ing shoots from late frosts and pre­vent de­vel­op­ing pota­toes from go­ing green due to ex­po­sure to light by pulling soil up around them – ‘earth­ing up’ is the term used to de­scribe this. Re­mem­ber to wa­ter pota­toes well dur­ing dry weather, and es­pe­cially when tu­bers are start­ing to form. Use a fork to care­fully lift tu­bers when they have reached the de­sired size.

“This year we cre­ated two prairie beds and have ideas for a Ja­panese gar­den in the court­yard”

In 2006 we sold our small busi­ness in Lin­colnshire to­gether with our house and its acre gar­den. I had be­come pas­sion­ate about gardening and, while we knew that our first project in France would be to ren­o­vate a house, we also knew that even­tu­ally the gar­den would be­come just as im­por­tant. So we set off to look for a home over the Chan­nel armed with a spade. I was adamant that I would en­sure that the land around the prop­erty we chose would be suit­able for mak­ing a gar­den. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and we fell in love with a house in Lot with 15cm of ‘soil’ on top of solid lime­stone.

Need­less to say, the spade never went any­where near the ground as I was con­fi­dent we could turn this in­hos­pitable ter­rain into a gar­den.

BLANK CAN­VAS

One can only say ‘ignorance is bliss’. The ma­jor work on our house be­gan in Oc­to­ber 2007 but we started clear­ing the en­vi­rons im­me­di­ately when we ar­rived. We were pre­sented with a blank can­vas to­talling a hectare.

Much of the next year was spent clear­ing the bound­aries, re­mov­ing saplings and the rub­bish dump ad­ja­cent to the barn. The perime­ter of the land had been in­vaded by bram­bles 4m wide which hid vast quan­ti­ties of aban­doned agri­cul­tural equip­ment.

The ma­jor ren­o­va­tions on the house started in Oc­to­ber 2007 and con­tin­ued for al­most a year. I had been in­spired by a potager I had seen in the Loire and while we could do lit­tle in the house we con­structed a fan-shaped veg­etable gar­den con­tain­ing 39 beds. This in­volved con­stant stone pick­ing so I had the idea to cre­ate a dry river bed. To our shame ‘the river’ was not fin­ished un­til last year. Gardening in un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory is a steep learn­ing curve and we soon re­alised that I had con­structed the veg­etable patch nowhere near a wa­ter sup­ply. So it was aban­doned the next sea­son.

When the builders left they took much of our pre­cious soil with them and left us piles of rocks. Al­though we were left with a shell, which took the next 10 years to turn into our dream home, we were de­ter­mined to cre­ate the gar­den while work­ing on the house.

We be­gan by ter­rac­ing the court­yard. It sounds very sim­ple but in­volved John building four stone walls and man­han­dling tons of rock to level the ground be­fore even­tu­ally cov­er­ing it with com­post. We saw our first blades of grass ap­pear in 2010.

LEARN­ING CURVE

The gar­den to the front of the house is for­mal with rose beds, an iris walk, per­gola and a dou­ble herba­ceous bor­der known as the ser­pen­tine bed. This part of the gar­den has a pink, white and blue theme. I made sev­eral mis­takes ini­tially when de­sign­ing the front gar­den. Fore­most I tried to plant an English gar­den in a cli­mate which os­cil­lates be­tween 40°C plus in the sum­mer and -20°C in the win­ter. We needed the right plant in the right place! Ad­just­ments have been made over the years.

The back gar­den is bordered by an al­ley of ma­ture trees which is planted with bulbs and a de­vel­op­ing wood­land bed. Be­neath the tree canopy I have cre­ated an herba­ceous bed us­ing hot­coloured plants, known as the long bed. Of course it strug­gles in mid-sum­mer but is suc­cess­ful in other sea­sons.

A cou­ple of years ago one of the piles of rock left by the builders was trans­formed into a parterre for plants which thrive in dry con­di­tions.

Above the sep­tic tank drainage field we have a bed known as the ‘Christo bed’, named af­ter the leg­endary gar­den de­signer Christo­pher Lloyd, who loved clash­ing colours. In spite of the cli­mate we en­deav­our to have a gar­den full of colour.

We have only re­cently planted trees through­out the gar­den – with hind­sight we should prob­a­bly have done this first.

In the ab­sence of soil we have to buy moun­tains of cheap com­post each year but the gar­den gives us both end­less plea­sure and each year we have a new project. This year we cre­ated two prairie beds and have ideas for a Ja­panese gar­den in the court­yard. open­gar­dens.eu

Below left: A bed of clash­ing colours in hon­our of gar­den de­signer Christo­pher Lloyd

Above: Sue and John fell in love with the house they found in Lot

Below right: A pretty flo­ral path­way in the front gar­den

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