La Bourdaisière is just one small chateau in the Loire Valley among dozens and dozens of others. It sits on a rise dominating its immediate surroundings, and in the middle of its parc classé [the equivalent of a registered historic park in Britain] and a 90 hectare estate. In itself that does not mark it out much from the other chateaux in the region. Its history is, like its architecture, nothing particularly special. Yet it is has become a remarkable place for one reason and that is its large kitchen garden, and what now goes on inside its walls. And that’s all down to a Prince and his tomatoes…
The images in this post are either from the Bourdaisiere website or my own photos unless otherwise stated.
The story begins around 1360 when a small fortress was put up at Montlouis-sur-Loire, a few miles outside the city of Tours in the Loire valley to help defend it from attack by the English. The dry moats still survive on two sides of the current chateau, along with spiral staircase down from the terrace and a single corner tower.
In the early 16thc it was owned by Marie Gaudin, reputedly the most beautiful woman of the day, and the mistress of the king, Francois I. Her husband presumably turned a blind eye to that in return for honours which enabled him to extend the medieval building and convert it into a small [well ok relatively small] but comfortable country house.
Over the course of the next century and a half there were many changes of ownership and further extensions and improvements, until towards the end of the 18thc when many of these were demolished!
In the early 19thc the new owner, Baron Angelier, began rebuilding in the then fashionable neo-Renaissance style. He also got rid of most of the remaining medieval features , transformed what was then only a gardener’s house into a Tudor Gothic Revival chapel and designed the current vegetable garden. His son and grandson continued the work, creating a long terrace overlooking the steep slope, and laying out an elaborate Renaissance style garden below.
After 1945 Bourdaisière was used as a military school and then sold to the local town to be an old people’s home. With increasing regulation which required expensive alterations the chateau was no longer suitable or viable so in 1991 it went up for sale again. It returned into aristocratic hands when it was bought by 29 yr old Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie and his brother Prince Philippe-Maurice. Once they had restored and furnished the château, it became a hotel run largely by Philippe Maurice while Louis Albert took on the neglected grounds, opening the park to the public and restoring the gardens. “Gardening”, the prince said in an interview “came to me as an epiphany after living the frenzy of the Eighties.”
Since then history has gone into reverse and instead of buildings walls and digging moats to keep the British out, the chateau has become much more interested in attracting them in to spend their money!
The de Broglies are a long-established noble family who arrived from Italy and rose to fame under Cardinal Mazarin in the 17thc. Since then they have been leading politicians, soldiers, and perhaps more surprisingly intellectuals – three Marshals of France, two Presidents of the Council, 5 members of the Acadamie Francais and a Nobel prizewinner in Physics amongst others. But if that grand princely title conjures up a severe-looking aged and aloof patrician think again. As I discovered when I led a tour party on a visit to the gardens last year. Prince Louis-Albert is a bit of a showman but a showman with a cause, or rather several causes, [all good], which he took great delight in telling us about as he stood barefoot in his gardening clothes.
Although he started his working life as a banker the prince was also an ecologist by conviction and decided to put his principles to the test practically: “I thought it would be nice to wake this sleeping beauty by making it a laboratory for my convictions,”
So successful has been been that he has been nicknamed Le Prince Jardinier – the Gardener Prince. It is a title he definitely enjoys and exploits in the commercial ranges he has established based around the chateau gardens – everything from posh handmade tools to gardening clothes, and from tomato based pasta sauces to tomato jam and liqueurs, and which has expanded into a small chain of luxury/boutique shops.
He began collecting tomatoes – first from seed catalogues, notably Terre de Semences – and Ferme Sainte Marthe and sowed 50 varieties in 1992. By 1995 it was 300 garnered from the Kokopelli Association, botanic collectors and gardens around the world.
I first visited Bourdaisiere nearly 20 years ago when it was still operating in a fairly amateur way, but over the years it’s clear that vision has become sharper and the project much more organised as the prince’s obsession developed. In 1998 he opened The National Conservatoire of Tomatoes, which is rather like a Plant Heritage National Collection in Britain. It aimed to collect, grow and research as many varieties as possible. It currently houses just over 700 varieties from all round the world which are exchanged and shared with other gardens worldwide.
Given that only about 30 varieties are grown commercially its quite hard to conceive of 700 really different sorts – obviously there are round, plum, beef, elongated, heart-shaped, pear-shaped, ribbed, and those which might be described as ‘malformed’. Obviously too there are different sizes from those tinier than cherry tomatoes up to giants that need two hands to hold them and that can weigh a kilo. Then there are colours ranging from almost pure white to almost jet black by way of every shade of green, yellow, orange, red, pink and purple imaginable, as well as those that are striped, speckled or freckled. The only colour missing from the spectrum, as in roses, seems to be blue.
That it is a global collection can be seen from some of the names: Dix Doigts de Naples, Rouge d’Irak, Erika d’Australie, Cornue des Andes, Super Italian Paste, Watermelon, Russian Persimmon, Striped German, Thessaloniki, Seattle Best of All.
The range of the collection now means that La Bourdaisière’s potager has been recognised by France’s Conservatoire des Collections Végétales Specialisées as the premier collection of tomatoes in the country..
They are grown in quite an informal setting, on wooden pyramids in straw-covered beds with herbs and flowers growing around them to attract pollinators.
But the collecting, growing and researching is only part of the deal. The aim is to share all this with the public and help them to appreciate the importance of safeguarding this diversity for future generations. The prince believes that “most people are too far removed from nature, [so] I hope the potager will help them discover that digging the earth is a pleasure that quite simply intensifies the joys of life.’
He also argues that supermarkets and giant food companies like Heinz and Campbell’s have “industrialised” the tomato: “I realised that there’s a whole industry of tomatoes, as well as the seed industry, that had a totally different vision of how we could cultivate tomatoes with minimal investment.” Conventional year-round supermarket tomatoes have swapped diversity and flavour for transportability and a long shelf life and are the antithesis of “real” tomatoes.
Bourdaisiere is one small step towards countering that. Opening the potager was a another step, followed by serving tomatoes to eat at the on-site tomato bar, and by using the fruit grown there to create a whole range of tomatoe based products.
Another fun way is by running an annual weekend festival of tomatoes every September, now in its 21st year. It was intended to be “ludiquee mais aussi tres profonde” [playful but also very profound]…“We want to connect people to the beauty of the world, the beauty of community, the beauty of sharing, and to the beauty of Gaia—or the earth—that provides our food,”
And there’s the serious research side too. In conjunction with the French national tomato and cucumber growers association Bourdaisiere is now home to a newly launched tomato laboratory, dedicated to academic research and improvements of tomatoes and similar salad and culinary crops because as if the tomatoes weren’t enough, the aim of the Bourdaisiere has been widened and is now ” to protect … the horticultural heritage of our kitchen gardens. We have 130 varieties of lettuces – brown, blond, red – plus numerous different sorts of cucumbers, cabbages and other vegetables. It’s biodiversity versus uniformity and standardisation.” More recently collections of mint, basils and other herbs have been added.
There is a short film on youtube with the prince and the head gardener explaining [in French] what goes on, and with lots of nice images if you don’t speak French.
And if that wasn’t enough Prince Louis-Albert has, as the tomato collection has become more and more successful, taken on a whole range of other ecological projects.
Ten years ago Bourdaisiere started an extremely colourful collection of dahlias – 50,000 tubers covering about 400 different varieties. This was redesigned in 2012 by Louis Benech.
An orchard has been planted now containing 100+ varieties of local, often endangered, fruit trees
Then in 2000 the famous Paris firm of Deyrolle found itself in severe financial trouble. Founded in 1831 their premises housed and sold a vast collection of natural history specimens, everything from shells and insects to stuffed animals, minerals and fossils. It was more like a cabinet of curiosities than a shop.
They also produced a wide range of educational materials, especially the very well-known range of natural history posters, including many botanic ones. De Broglie was keen to keep this going and widen its scope.
Unfortunately after the prince bought the company a fire destroyed much of the premises and its collection but he has worked to rebuild it and restarted its publishing activity, adding a new range of educational charts and material under the name of Deyrolle pour l’Avenir [Deyrolle for the future] on issues such sustainable development, climate changes, endangered species, and renewable energy. These are produced for various international organizations, including UNESCO, as well as the French Ministries of Education and Ecology. They are displayed all round the grounds at Bourdaisiere too.
Next, in 2013, was an experimental farm, but not an ordinary experimental farm [if such a thing exists] but a micro-farm, which aims to improves the efficiency and benefits of small-scale local, and sustainable production.
Fermes d’Avenir, [Farms for the Future], is on a six acre site run in in partnership with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research . It’s hoped it will be a blueprint for similar ventures all over France. It fits neatly with de Broglie plans for other sustainable developments around the rest of the estate, and his dream of making La Bourdaisière the first historic monument «écorénové». [Loosely translatable as restored/run in an eco-friendly way]
I hope this post hasn’t sounded too much like an advertorial, but what is going on at Bourdaisiere is impressive both in scale and scope, and shows that historic parks and gardens can have an innovative future in keeping with their innovative pasts. I think it’s a real example of garden history in the making.
For more information a good place to start is the Bourdaisiere website. As I said the prince is a bit of showman so rather than suggest any specific sites just google his name and you’ll find lots of articles, interviews and video clips in both English and French.