Journées des Plantes de Chantilly: La Crème de la Crème– Episode 1
Garden lovers all around Europe are familiar with the event most of them still fondly refer to as “Courson”. Taking place twice a year, mid-May and at the end of September, it simply cannot be missed by anyone who claims to love plants and gardens. Created in 1982 by Hélène de Fustier and her husband of 30 years, the show has gathered anyone who’s anyone within the French and European gardening world at Courson, on the Fustier’s own domain, surrounding their castle.
But after organizing the event for so long and knowing their own children had no intention whatsoever of ever taking over, the Fustiers had to find a solution to keep the event alive. So, since May 2015, Courson’s Journées des Plantes has been relocated to Chantilly, well known for its eponymous whipped cream, the most refined of laces, and being the European capital of race horses.
Although the fair now takes place in the English part of Chantilly Castle’s park, designed by no other than André Le Nôtre (the first French star gardener in history, chosen by Louis XIV to design the gardens of Versailles,) the move was still controversial. And as it is often the case before major changes, purists cried crime, claiming the event would lose its soul– that in 30 years and 60 sessions in Courson, privileged connections that had been made with the locals would forever be lost.
But as we attended this May session in Chantilly, which was already the third one to be relocated, none of the above misgivings were felt. With almost 250 exhibitors and an incredible variety of plants of all kinds, the show was as generous as it had always been. Embracing its motto, to “Share the art of cultivating your garden”, as well as its seasonal theme, “The Gourmand Garden”, wonderment befell us at every turn.
Logical to suit that noble idea was the undeniable consecration of medicinal and aromatic plants. Long considered as underdogs, meant only for Parisian housewives craving basil leaves with their pasta, aromatic gardens and plants have earned their nobility back the hard way. The great landscaper-gardener, Pierre-Alexandre Risser, presented a landscaped garden at Courson made only of edible plants. Between the roots, leaves, and flowers, all plants on display could be eaten one way or another. Artichokes, tulbaghias, rosemary, thyme, calamintha (also known as mountain mint), lavender, pear and apple trees, savory, valerian, loquats, Moroccan watercress, and claytonia salad were all proving first hand the incredible possibilities those aromatic species have always offered. Risser, never shy to hand over a piece of advice, reminded us that to create a successful edible garden, the soil and sun exposure requirements should both be respected.
At “Fleurs et Senteurs”, one could enjoy large bushes of sage up to 60 cm high. Delicately perfumed, sometimes recalling the smell of menthol or mandarin, all of the plants were in bloom. From soft pale to almost neon pink, deep reds and vibrant purples, almost every color of the rainbow was represented through these tiny, fierce flowers. A special mention was given for Salvia Microphylla (aka Ribambelle) and its inimitable, delicate, salmon-pink flowers– one of Catherine Bernabé’s latest creations.
By the same token, one couldn’t help but be amazed at the variety of mints from “Arom’antique”, which included varieties of pineapple, anise, banana, basil, lemon, ginger, strawberry, orange, grapefruit, lavender and even chocolate mint varieties. On the hills of Drôme, Laurent Bourgeois cultivates over 400 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants, and reminds us just how much herbs of all sorts used to be part of our daily lives– and how their heeling virtues used to be essential to us until modern medicine appeared. Not only does Bourgeois advocate for developing new tasteful horizons, but he also preserves local species such as mint from Corsica, the Missouri mountains, Tennessee, and Morocco.
Meanwhile, at Jean-Marc Parra’s “AH! La Ferme des Saveurs”, from the heart of Aquitaine, about 18 varieties of basils from all over the world wait to be discovered, each bearing unique and distinct leaf sizes, colors, and scents. Just about as many myrrhs, oreganos, chillies, thymes and other ancient tomato species could be found. While falling in love with one of those forgotten species, one should also not forget to leave with a borage plant, which is an ideal way to attract bees to any garden and help with pollination. Alliums– tall, small, large, white, brown, or purple in color– were also more trendy than ever.
Up North, in Picardie, Mathieu Vermes has been growing Asters since 1993. But about 7 years ago, he also started growing rhubarb– a sugary vegetable (not a fruit) that is well suited in watery but well-drained soil. Visitors could purchase raw rhubarb canes by the kilo for 3€, but marmalade, sauce, and other pies were also available. (Most were made from the “Valentine” rhubarb– a variety with an incomparably red and sweet flesh.)
But for some at the exhibition, embracing this year’s theme was not as easy, and this led several of the gardeners and chefs to organize very involved demonstrations and workshops. Rustica Magazine— the practical Bible of French gardeners– hosted a concierge chef, Olivier Picard, who specializes in vegetarian cooking. At their exhibit, he executed two of his recipes. (A savory dish involving grated carrot, minced dried apricot, unfiltered lemon juice, sesame oil, and fresh herbs was our favorite.) Meanwhile, the famous rose breeder Delbard had teamed up with Eric Boutté– one Michelin starred chef from L’Aubergade.
Boutté had imagined two different deserts around the association of raspberry and rose, and although discovering the taste and texture of crystallized rose petals had us exhale sighs of guilty pleasure, our hearts stopped at the taste of artisanal rose marshmallows– a recipe we will make sure to share with you very soon!
On the first day we ended our tour of the bountiful selection of edible plants and herbs happily stocked with fresh bouquets, candied fruits, and clear round balls filled with delicious marshmallows. We left ready to continue exploring the extraordinary selection of flowers and trees the following morning– a mesmerizing beauty we will be sure to share with you in the coming days.