A tomato grows in Bercy

On a tiny side street in the 3rd arrondissement near the market known as Les Enfants Rouges (named for a former orphanage where the children wore red jackets), we stumbled across a tiny garden, divided into even tinier plots, filled with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. A sign told us it was Le Potager des Oiseaux. Another time, Philippa found a similar little space in the 11th, called Le Jardin Nomade.

It’s somehow surprising to see food growing in Paris. We’re used to thinking of the city as a place where food is sold, cooked, consumed, and celebrated. But produced…? Not so much.

Paris’s food production hardly rivals that of France’s major agricultural areas, but if you know where to look, you can find it. There are beehives on the Opera Garnier, the Opera Bastille, the Grand Palais, the Tour d’Argent restaurant, and probably a few other rooftops. We once bought a little jar of honey from the Opera Garnier roof; it had an endearingly amateurish-looking label made on a photocopier and contained a pale honey with a faintly smoky taste.

And on the slopes behind Sacre-Coeur is the vineyard known as Clos Montmartre, at the corner of rue des Saules and rue St Vincent. It’s the only remaining vineyard in Paris. Once upon a time, the Butte Montmartre (Montmartre hill) was covered with vineyards and market gardens. Vincent Van Gogh painted them in 1887, with a mill in the background – no,  not the Moulin Rouge, the Moulin de Blute-Fin). All gone now. The original vines on the hill were killed by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century that wiped out vines across the country. The Clos Montmartre was created some decades later, when a group of artists stopped a real estate development on the site and started a vineyard. The first grape harvest was in 1934. Today, the vineyard produces about 1,500 half-bottles of wine a year. Not much, admittedly, but it carries symbolic weight.

For growing veggies and fruit, the city offers about 50 jardins partagés (allotment gardens or community gardens), squeezed into leftover corners of land, mostly in the eastern and southern parts of the city. Gardening writer Marjorie Harris has also noticed these pocket gardens. “I was totally enchanted by the neighbourhood gardens tucked into corners and looked after by locals. It was like coming upon the most glorious oasis in a city full of them. There’s one in the 20th where we were staying and it was never unpopulated. People dropped in and out all day long.”

Some of these jardins partagés have wonderful names: Le Poireau Agile in the 10th (un poireau is a leek, and this name plays off the name of the famous inn called Le Lapin Agile), Le Jardin des Mots et des Merveilles in the 13th (the garden of words and wonders), Le Lapin Ouvrier in the 14th (the working rabbit), or Jardin de Perlimpinpin in the 17th (perlimpinpin comes from poudre de perlimpinpin, meaning a magic cure-all). We can’t help thinking that perhaps urban agriculture in other cities might find wider acceptance if community gardens were always given such charming names.

Even the ubiquitous windowboxes grow basil, mint, parsley, and tarragon, along with the typical geraniums. In the last apartment we rented, we had instructions to keep the herbs well watered.

The term “locavore” (that is, someone who seeks out locally grown food) has made the transition to French, and at least one book has even been written on the subject for a French audience. We find this a bit odd, as French people have been locavores for generations, and don’t seem to have as great a need to reconnect with the sources of their food as North Americans. Here, books like the 100-Mile Diet (about a couple in B.C. who survive for a year on local food) and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (about a family’s experiences growing their own food in southern Appalachia) inspire fascination and awe. In most parts of France, 100-mile diets would probably not be a jaw-dropping feat, and growing your own is an experience common to all but the most jet-setting of urbanites.

Still, the generation that eats at McDo probably needs reminding about the origins of food now and then, so Paris provides educational gardens, including one in the Parc de Bercy, which welcome school tours.

Even the wife of the U.S. ambassador is getting into the act. She created a potager on the grounds of the embassy in the rue Faubourg St-Honoré, following the lead of Michelle Obama, who made a food garden on the White House grounds. Students from a local horticultural school helped plan it and plant it, and the embassy chef will use the produce (which includes artichokes, rhubarb, and red currants) in embassy menus.

And why not livestock? Apparently Louis XV, a noted bird fancier, and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, kept chickens and other birds in cages on the roof of Versailles, and presumably enjoyed a ready supply of fresh eggs. For all we know, some Parisians do the same. We can just imagine the gleam in a chef’s eye, contemplating the birds and the bunnies in the pet market on the Quai de la Mégisserie….

Vocabulary: The Moulin de Blute-Fin translates as the mill that grinds finely (blutage is the word for separating the flour from the bran). A vegetable or kitchen garden is un potager; a market garden is un maraîcher.

Links: For the full list of Paris’s community gardens (in French): see http://jardinons-ensemble.org/

Text and photograph copyright Philippa Campsie

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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2 Responses to A tomato grows in Bercy

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog – it has helped me to find yours, which is fascinating!

    I wanted to get involved in one of these jardins partagés, but it’s quite a difficult task. A problem I have with them though is that they are often so pretty! I see people in them enjoying an apéritif in the evening, but rarely do I see people working in them. I was brought up in the UK where these places were called allotments, and they were dirty, scruffy sites, but they produced endless quantites of vegetables. They were also very much a working class institution, but I fear these Parisian versions are mostly tended by the hands of quite a priviledged middle class.

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