Friday, September 2, 2011

A Potager in Provence

Although Provence has a reputation for secheresse and heatwaves, much of the land is wonderfully fertile. The markets in most towns and villages - stuffed with fruit and vegetables, oil and cheese, herbs and meat - are testimony to the soil's fertility.

The land is irrigated by free-flowing water - rivers like the Sorgue, by canal water and by the rain which, when it falls, can fall in torrents.

A friend and I started a potager this summer and its productivity has been astounding. To start with, we selected 4 tomato varieties and bought tiny seedlings in the local market at Velleron. Our choices were Coeur de boeuf, then a 'black' tomato and two varieties of tomates cerises - cherry tomatoes. As I was pondering which to buy, I heard a customer tell the stall holder that the tomato plants he'd bought there a few weeks previously were already producing kilos of good tomatoes. A good sign, so I selected my plants and handed over a few euros.

The potager is tiny - around 12 feet by 6. Once the soil was prepared and the plants were supported by canes, we added lettuce, broccoli, aubergines, courgettes and green peppers. We added a modest goutte à goutte system - pipes to water the potager daily - and a little fumier, or manure and straw, as fertiliser.

Within weeks the plants were groaning with produce. The Coeur de boeuf tomatoes are as big as melons. The cerise plants are covered with hundreds of small sweet fruits. The rougette lettuces are astonishingly fresh and crunchy. The batavias are good too.

Suddenly I realise how the paysans in the markets can sell their fruit and veg so cheaply. Before I'd thought it was mainly because the costs of bringing produce into the village or town was so low. Petrol's expensive so it helps if you can limit transport to a few kilometres. Now though, having seen at first hand how productive a tiny rectangle of soil can be, I see why much produce is relatively cheap.

Since I need to be thrifty these days, I've been looking out recipes for the veg and methods of conserving them for the winter. So far, for the tomatoes alone, I've tried tomates farcies, a pasta sauce flavoured with fresh thyme from the garrigue, another with anchovies, tomates provençales, ratatouille, gazpacho and a pizza with tomatoes and jambon sec. The stuffed tomatoes and sauces freeze well.

Add to the potager produce a harvest of sweet and plump figues de Caromb and kilos of hazelnuts and living off the land almost seems possible! The terrace is draped with hundreds of bunches of grapes, almost ripe and ready to pick.

Quite apart from being economical, a potager is simply a joy. It's a real pleasure to go out each morning and evening and see what new crop has progressed or ripened. The cherry tomatoes are coming through so thick and fast that as soon as I pick them, and dish some out to neighbours, another bunch - almost hidden by heavy foliage - are glowing dark red.

Since the manure comes from horses we know, and their owner gives them untreated food and minimises any medication, the potager produce is pretty much non-traité - untreated. It doesn't need any organic labelling as far as I'm concerned. The fact that it's natural is quite enough. In fact, the abundant crops produced every day from soil, sun and water seem like a minor Provençal miracle.

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