Last October, I spent three days in Paris looking at community gardens, urban vineyards, and visiting the impressive Potager du Roi, in Versailles, just a 45 minute train ride from central Paris.
Perhaps the best “find” was a community garden in the 13th Arrondissement. It was just a few blocks from my friends’ house, and we wandered over to take a few photos. We were immediately welcomed by a gardener and given a complete, comprehensive tour of the whole garden.
Here’s a quick excerpt from my book manuscript:
As in most cities in Europe and North America, interest in urban food gardening in Paris hit an all-time low in the 1990s but started to rebound just as it was threatening to become extinct. In 1999, a group of “guerilla gardeners,” activists who plant food gardens on underused or abandoned urban sites without approval of the land’s owners, planted an illegal garden on a former industrial site. The project, called The Green Hand, got an official sanction a couple of years later when Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë supported urban revitalization and urban greening initiatives like Paris’ famous Vélib’ bicycle-sharing program and the city-wide ban on pesticide use after his election in 2001. Now, La Main Verte is the city’s official community gardening resource organization, and community food gardens are making a comeback to the capital. (In the last decade, there has been a renewed interest in the protection of local culinary traditions, so heritage produce and fruits — Pontoise cabbage, Montmagny dandelion, Argenteuil asparagus, Montmorency cherry, and the Faro apple have been back in vogue.) The City of Paris’ official municipal website listed fifty-eight community gardening sites in 2011.
After the morning market trip to Marché Auguste-Blanqui, I set out to find a community garden in her neighborhood that a friend’s husband had stumbled across just a few weeks earlier.
(OK, enough about this market, but the range of food -- cooked, cured, raw, and fermented -- was inspiring. There were fish mongers scaling fish right on the street, rotisserie chicken vendors selling hot roast, whole chicken, market gardeners, a few clothing stands, and baked goods all happily co-existing at a street market that would never, ever be allowed to exist in North America due to our extreme love of regulating direct-to-consumer food sales.)
The Jardins familiaux du boulevard de l’Hôpital community garden is squeezed between a 1960s French government subsidized-housing apartment block on one side and high-rent apartments on the other, and is accessible only by a sidewalk that cut between the two buildings. As we approached, we noticed a wiry grey-haired man fiddling with a row of grape vines, bifocals sliding toward end of his nose and an unlit cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. His crew neck sweater, à la Jacques Cousteau, had a few pulled threads. He could only have look more French if he was wearing a beret and had a baguette tucked under his arm as he pruned his vines.
Griffault explained that had been gardening here for five years. Before then, he’d never as much watered a houseplant, having been born and has lived in the very same Paris neighborhood his whole life. “I was born in concrete, and I will die in concrete,” he declared rather enthusiastically. He learned to garden only when he got his plot, mostly by watching the other gardeners.
As we slowly walked his little plot, he tested our knowledge in a type of name-that-plant agricultural quiz show. The radishes, a bay leaf tree, tomatoes, leeks, artichokes, celery, and strawberries were easy enough. He then moved on to more challenging plants, like lovage and cinnamon basil. His fearlessness in his gardening was endearing. For a Parisian-born Frenchman, his sense of international culinary adventure was impressive.
He pulled a long, white, two-pound Daikon radish, the kind that gets grated into strings and piled on sushi plates in Japanese restaurants, wiped the sticky clay from it and handed it to Jesse, who really didn’t know what to make of it. He also had shiso, a spicy, floral Japanese basil, growing on his plot. An Antillean gardener has a chayote squash vine. Another has a stand of giant cabbage on remarkably long stocks. Some plots were like a United Nations of herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables. We spotted a pumpkin too, definitely a non-traditional French food. And very late-bearing strawberries — it was the first weekend of October.
And of course, his row of Chasselas grapes, though the 2010 humid conditions made them impossible to grow unaffected by moldy fungus. Nearby, he pointed to a pêche de vigne tree, a late-ripening peach, on a neighboring plot. Griffault told us that these peaches were traditionally planted among the grapevines as snacks for grape-pickers during harvest.
“Nipple of Venus!” he shouted naughtily as we approached a tomato plant with purplish red tomatoes with a slightly pointed tips was his next stop. “It’s a new one we’re trying this year.” At this point, we were clearly pillaging from other gardeners’ plots. “Don’t worry, I’m allowed,” he reassured, waving his cigarette-holding hand over his head. As we walked he picked whatever was ripe and handed it to Jesse who was happily filling her cloth market bag.
(PS: I'm on a French kick these days because my friends from Paris came to visit me in Canada.)