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