The Tomato Prince
If you think Arkansas Traveler is simply a popular American folk tune and Glasnost a Soviet governing philosophy, if you think Matt's Wild Cherry must be a new Lifesaver flavor and Green Zebras belong in the exotica section at the zoo--think again.
They are four varieties of heirloom tomatoes out of more than 3,000 that are providing inspiration to cooks and gardeners all over the world, from Vermont to Siberia, from Arizona to the Crimean Peninsula, from Poland and Italy to--not incidentally, as I'll explain in a minute--France. Seed savers and collectors, working in attics, garden sheds and country markets like medieval monks in pursuit of saintly relics, are scrambling after the smallish, flattish, round and rather nondescript-looking seeds of old and forgotten varieties of Lycopersicon esculentum. At greenmarket stalls, heirlooms exhibit a profusion of colors, shapes and sizes: red, pink, yellow, green, orange, purple, ivory and almost black fruits, some as small as currants, some as large as squashes--striped ones, dappled ones, fruits shaped like plums, like persimmons, like peppers, some smooth and round, some ridged and crenulated.
Heirloom-tomato fever has even caught on with the French aristocracy. Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie--who bears a name almost as venerable as Bourbon or Charlemagne but refers to himself as le prince jardinier (the gardener prince)--recently installed an heirloom-tomato collection in the walled potager, or kitchen garden, of his Château de la Bourdaisière, a modest but charming sixteenth-century estate outside Tours that he and his brother Philippe-Maurice bought a few years back.
Dominating the village of Montlouis-sur-Loire, between the Loire and Cher rivers in the heart of the Montlouis wine district, the Renaissance Château de la Bourdaisière was once the residence of royal mistresses: Marie Gaudin, petite amie of François I, and Gabrielle d'Estrées, a favorite of Henri IV. Today it operates as a kind of bed-and-breakfast. (The inn charges extra, however, for the delicious and copious breakfast.) There are 18 rooms with private bath, as well as two suites.
With a friend, I stayed at the château last summer. We shared a suite of spacious, comfortable rooms with tall casement windows that gave on to the park--a scene of utter peace and tranquillity. Guests can wander freely over the château's extensive forested grounds or relax in a secluded corner of the drawing room, which has been furnished in a family style, complete with old portraits and wedding photos. La Bourdaisière makes a good base for exploring the surrounding array of medieval and Renaissance châteaus (including Villandry, with its 17 acres of vegetable, herb and flower gardens). One small caveat: Visitors to la Bourdaisière should be prepared for a rather stiff reception from the staff; because of a mix-up in reservations, we were asked quite abruptly to leave.
But you don't need to stay at the château to tour the potager. Under the experienced hand and eye of Marc Brizion, the garden, which is open to the public from April to mid-November, includes an astounding 514 varieties of tomato, as well as 120 different lettuces and some 40 varieties of basil. (Companion-planting basil with tomatoes is an old organic gardener's trick for warding off insects--marigolds have a similar effect.) The potager operates under the principles of what the French call culture biologique, meaning that the gardener uses only organic fertilizers and no sprays other than the copper sulfate (also known as Bordeaux mixture) acceptable to organic cultivators.
The genial prince is eager to show me le conservatoire de la tomate--the tomato garden. "This potager had been in disarray for 50 years before we bought the château," he told me as we strolled the grassy paths between plots where latticework trellises, artfully made out of rough wooden sticks bound with willow withes, keep the rangy tomato plants from sprawling. "Biodiversity is the idea," he continued. "That and the notion that a garden should be a pleasant and a useful place." He pointed with pride to his Italian Costoluto Genovese and American Green Zebra and treasured American Brandywine plants.
After touring the potager and chatting (in French) with Brizion, a traveler might wander to a converted stable nearby, where one of the château's young chefs demonstrates tomato recipes (quiches, sauces, salsas, soups) and offers samples of his creations as well as, frequently, wedges of the most recently harvested fruits. Visitors can also stop by the château's shop, which sells the prince's bottled sauces, salsas and whole, peeled tomatoes. (For those who can't make it out to the Loire Valley, the prince also sells these condiments at his Paris shop, called Le Prince Jardinier.) There's still more tasting to be done at the château in mid-September, at the annual fête de la tomate, when visiting chefs prepare heirloom-tomato dishes that celebrate the height of the harvest.
The head chef at the château, Stéphane Garnier, does the cooking when the prince entertains dinner guests in one of the handsome old greenhouses at the far end of the potager--parties that are most common in midsummer, when the long twilights give the space a subtle glow. Naturally enough, the menu often focuses on tomatoes: thinly sliced and baked, in a pissaladière that is a variation on the Provençal onion pizza; braised, in a tomato soup lightly spiced with cumin; pureed, in a vinaigrette for greens; roasted, in a gratin with cheese made from the milk of local goats. And the vanilla ice cream dessert gets a dollop of green-tomato marmalade. These recipes are so good that they can spread heirloom-tomato fever even to people who don't know the difference between Arkansas Traveler and Matt's Wild Cherry.