A visit to the King's Vegetable Gardens in Versailles (potager du roi) with some history and what fruit and vegetables are there today.
Saveurs du Potager Festival (October)
Their gates have been open to the public since 1991 following its renovation. Every October they have a special Saveurs du Potager, an annual culinary festival to showcase the diversity of the 300-or-so varieties of fruits and vegetables that are grown here.
These gates are rare here, the only ones left not to be melted down for canons during the French Revolution. They're also surrounded by French plum trees - lines of different varieties (mirabelles de Lorraine, etc.) next to the gate. However, four aisles of the same variety of Reine Claudes (greengages so named as King François I's wife adored them) are grown as it's easier to produce plums this way.
Today, classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 9.4 hectares of plot, 30 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables are produced each year at the Potager du Roi, thanks to the horticultural school's students (ENSP Versailles) next door. Produce can be bought all year round from their shop at the entrance.
Who Was La Quintinye?
While Le Notre was responsible for the gardens at Versailles, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinye (pronounced Cantini) was responsible for building the potager-fruitier over five years (1678-1683), turning it out of swamp land, and ensuring the best quality fruit and vegetables on the royal table.
His statue surveys the daily pickings plus the continuation of experiments and new gardening techniques. If he continued gardening today, he would be seen as a chemical gardener: to fight off diseases and insects, he'd use arsenic and nicotine. Luckily today it's organic (known as 'bio' in French).
The Fig Garden (Jardin de la Figuerie)
La Quintinye wrote one book in his lifetime, passing on his techniques to others. It opens with one striking image of La Quintinye offering a fresh fig from his basket to King Louis XIV. He's also wearing a hat, unheard of in society to be wearing one in the presence of the King.
His genius was also king. He'd found a way to produce figs all year round as well as other incredible tricks that continue the 'fruits of his labour' today. There are now 700 fig trees in the shadow of La Figuerie building.
For more, see the French market page on figs (figues)
Louis XIV was so proud of this garden that he loved to bring visitors such as the Doge of Venice on a tour here, passing the exotic Orangerie en route. The King could show off his own pruning techniques and explain how his talented gardener managed to ensure that asparagus or strawberries could arrive 3 weeks before season by using different manures.
The Royal Herb Garden
My eye was drawn to the aromatic herbs of the garden since I love decorating dishes with edible flowers. Bourrache (borage) is popular here, almost growing wildly - but imagine the perfume of a huge patch of mustard plants, out in pretty white flowers.
Likewise, an abundant sea of tarragon. Louis XIV, XV and XVI were yet to discover the blissful Béarnaise sauce, which primarily uses tarragon. This was to be invented much later in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just a few kilometres away between Versailles and Paris.
Genius of Auguste Hardy
Just when I thought Beurré Hardy was one of the most popular varieties of French pears (poires), Auguste Hardy was head gardener in the 19th century who invented all kinds of growing and pruning techniques.
Hardy invented L'espalier gardening (growing against a wall) vs Contrespalier (away from the wall) - all fascinating techniques which you can learn from any of the gardeners on site.
The King's Vegetable Garden has had such a wealth of gardener savoir-faire which has gone from generation to generation.
Pumpkins and Potimarrons
Hundreds of different squash were ready for harvest. The French are particularly fond of the potimarron pumpkin, appreciated for its chestnut like taste as the name implies. However, the name potimarron is purely commercial (I've got that wrong here in my potimarron macarons!) and known as Rouge de Hokkaido or Red Kuri Squash.
Incidentally, I even discovered that Alkekenge is the real name for physalis or cape gooseberries, cages d'amour (love cages - trust the French to be so romantic).
For more, including recipes, see the
French market page on Pumpkins and Squash
Combatting Birds & Insects
This year parasites have been a huge pest to fruit and vegetables. The biggest problem with apple trees (pommiers) are the Tigres de Poirier (literally pear tree tigers). So, unlike Le Quintinye who would use arsenic or nictotine, today gardeners use a talc that's used in making porcelaine that creates a barrier.
It's like humans says one of the gardeners:
"It's like treating a cold with antibiotics - what's the point? Like Covid today, we have to learn to live with it." (Head Gardener, Potager du Roi, Versailles)
Birds are also a huge problem, in particular the growing number of perakeets in the area, who help themselves to the fruit just as they start to ripen.
So, when we were there mid September, the apples and pears had already been harvested early to ripen off the plants in time for the Fête des Saveurs in October. Birds also don't help with weeds: they eat the weed seeds and spread them around too.
Chaste Tree (Oh-là-là)
Antoine couldn't resist sharing this find in the vegetable gardens. Hidden in a small corner was this beautiful plant with purple flowers. Apparently used in medieval times and placed in the bed of monks to stop any arousals, hence the name, Chaste Tree.
The spice extracted from the plant is named Monk's Pepper.
Rhubarb wasn't grown at the time of Louis XIV but they're making up for it now!
I adore rhubarb and seeing rows and rows of it against the terraced walls made me rejoice with all my recipes with rhubarb. At the King's Vegetable Garden, they produce the most incredible rhubarb nectar: it's not too sweet, just the right acidity.
Festival of Taste in October
If you're in Versailles in October, do pop in to the Fête des Saveurs. It's also where various local gardening clubs show visitors how to create compost, how to create a shelter for ladybirds, make your own apple juice - plus how to construct a 'hotel' for insects.
However, at their shop at any time of year - or at the market in Versailles - it's where you can buy their freshly pressed apple juice and rhubarb nectar. It's also where you can pick up fascinating gardening books on growing your own fruit and vegetables.
For more information and opening times:
Potager du Roi (King's Kitchen Garden)
10 Rue du Maréchal Joffre
For much more from the French market, see the guide to fresh fruit and vegetables.
This post was originally published 11 October 2012 but text and images are now updated.
Just ran across this lovely blog post that I had never seen before. Fascinating, Jill! Of course it appeals to my love of cooking and gardening both and it reminds me of the movie "A Little Chaos", about André Le Nôtre and the gardens there at Versailles. Glad to have found this older, but still wonderful, post on your blog!
Thrilled you found this, Betty, as I have many posts and somehow they each get hidden easily on the internet! Thanks for popping in. Makes me think it's time to re-visit the Potager du Roi in Versailles, as it's wonderful at this time of year with apples and pears in season soon!
This looks like such a fun day Jill! Your Onion Tart looks scrumptious BTW :)!
Too much! I'm going today and I have a pineapple ripening in a paper bag!
A fishy cucumber, huh? Not exactly sure WHAT kind of dish we'd toss that one in 😉
Looks like a lovely trip though!
And sign me up for some chocolate macarons with poached coffee-vanilla pears! That sounds divine! Much like 'love cages'
Nami | Just One Cookbook
Haha you made me laugh about fishy cucumber. I've never tried with edible flowers but it's good to know not every ingredient is good with flowers. Thanks for taking us to this virtual tour! I enjoy every time you take us around Paris!
Indeed, Nami. I'm making a list of the edible flowers and what are best with different dishes after that fishy start! Glad you enjoyed the trip with me.
Hester @ Alchemy in the Kitchen
What a magical place, Jill, and a great time to visit it. Glad you didn't enter the grotto through the roof - that would have been a bit of a shock! Love the onion tarte tatin. Great photo journal of your day at Versaille.
Thanks, Hester. I was rather freaked out seeing the size of the surprise 'hole' up there. Can you imagine women in their crinolines fleeing down there? At least they had so many layers they'd parachute down!
Such a wonderful adventure for you and Lucie! My kids would have loved finding a secret passage, too. So glad you found a dry day to check out the garden...and that it inspired you to make a yummy onion tart. I hope you saved a big slice for me 🙂
Sorry Liz but we're a bit too greedy in our house, lol. Anytime I think of you in Paris it was under that torrential rain too. You must think it's not dry often!
What an enjoyable way to spend the day with your daughter. I would have loved to join you while browsing through the vegetable garden.
The 5th group of photos if you look at the bottom right one - it reminds me of a witch. All that spooky talk about walking through holes and then that photo startled me. Take a look! It looks like a witch, arms stretched, gown on and pointed hat. Do you see it?
I'm going cross-eyed, Vicki. I can't see it. Perhaps I need to get another eye test. Glad you saw it, though. Must be all this Hallowe'een talk!
Jill, I so enjoy your travelogues. The rich narrative is always paired with appealing photography. At the end of the post I'm always left with the feeling that I've just concluded a vacation. Speaking of pairings, the Red Onion Tarte Tatin with the Sauvignon Blanc sounds dreamy and inspiring. Brava!
What a wonderful thing to say. Thank you so much, Brooks.
In all the time I lived in Paris, I never made it to the potager so thanks for taking us there virtually, Jill.
Beautiful photos Jill, and what a cool way to spend some time. I'm a garden gal. I'm also a grotto gal, we used to vacation up by one in Northern Ontario and we'd take the kids every year to explore.
Our flour choices in Canada blow. I don't think I've ever seen 00. Hoping to make a run to the states and pick up some different KA flours while I'm there.
Hope you are well. I so wish we were neighbours.
Me too, Kim. Who knows? Hopefully you can make it to Paris soon.
That would have been my perfect day out; Paris, potagers, orchards and food.
It was Jacqui. And no rain to boot!
Wow! Did you know before you went to visit the garden that there are all these activities going on? I love it and now I want to visit! And your tart is beautiful! I love the idea of a caramelized red onion tart! Wonderful write up, Jill!
Thanks so much Jamie. I did know about this in advance - that's why I was dying to find an excuse to visit the place, as nobody else in the family was eager 😉