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Garden Party at Domaine de Péré

Garden Party at Domaine de Péré

If there is one garden fair that should be on everyone’s calendar then make sure it is the “Fête des Plantes et du Jardin” in the Deux-Sèvres. Teresa Hardy meets the man who makes it happen.

Forget your visits to plant fairs in exhibition hall decorated to resemble gardens. The Fête de Péré is the real thing: a moving experience bringing you into contact with the beauty of nature, the poetic inspiration of artists and the invaluable knowledge of botanists renowned the world over.

Domaine de Pere

Situated on a back road between the country villages of Prisse-la-Charriere and Thorigny, lies the magnificent yet unassuming Domaine de Péré, a 130- hectare farm and parkland owned by the current family since 1712. The collection of historic chais, towers and houses at the heart of this Domaine is the site for one of the top ten botanical fairs in the whole of France: the colourful 'Fête des Plantes et du Jardin', held twice-yearly in June and October.

Francois Xavier de CrisnayForget your visits to plant fairs in exhibition halls decorated to resemble gardens. The Fête de Péré is the real thing: a moving experience bringing you into contact with the beauty of nature, the poetic inspiration of artists and the invaluable knowledge of botanists renowned the world over. Adepts of the Domaine's natural environment come back year after year; some to spend a pleasant day in the countryside with a picnic, admiring the creativity and wealth of colours in the exhibitions and wandering through the wild parkland; others to glean professional advice from the exhibitors who, under the spell of the convivial ambience, are more than willing to pass on their tips to keen amateurs.

The creator of this wonderful event is François-Xavier, the current owner of the Domaine and a wholehearted believer in all that is natural. A passionate artist, he divides his time between painting, running the cereal farm, looking after his flock of 45 Scottish Blackface sheep, maintaining the parkland and producing organic vegetables. "My partner Catherine helps me in the 'potager fleuri'. We use companion planting and a lunar gardening guide that shows when it's the best time for reaping and sowing. She has 'Ia main verte' (green fingers), and the old-fashioned vegetables we produce have a delicious flavour," says François-Xavier. During the last three winters he has also restored the 450-square-metre chai that houses a part of the Fête's exhibitions.

Besides Catherine, a neighbour helps out on the farm and maintains 10 hectares of the 40 hectares of parkland. ''The sheep roam over 30 hectares, which we leave in its natural state so that wild flowers can flourish. As for the remaining 10 hectares, it takes 3 days to mow it all, and then we have to start again!"

Times have certainly changed, as between the two World Wars 64 people used to work on the Domaine, and before the French Revolution the Domaine counted 5,000 hectares. The house itself dates from 1612, according to an inscription in Roman Numerals on the house between the two towers. It belonged to the De Fournier family at the time, and then a series of other families until 1712, when the de Crisnay family acquired it. "We are an old Poitou-Charentes family with a lineage dating back to 1600, while my mother's family is from the Lorraine and dates back to 1200." says François- Xavier.

Domaine de Pere

François-Xavier himself was brought up in Paris and sent to look after the Domaine in 1962, aged 24 and knowing nothing about the countryside. He started with a milking farm, and when a Brucellosis outbreak forced him to slaughter his 200 strong herd, he turned to plants and decided to grow cereals.

The idea of holding a botanical exhibition had been in his mind for a while, but this kind of event wasn't traditional in Poitou-Charentes; botanists never stopped when crossing the region because they claimed there was no garden culture here. Then, in 1995. François-Xavier heard that there was to be the first Fête des Plantes in Dampierre-sur-Boutonne and went along. Despite the rain and the supposed lack of garden culture in the region, there were a surprising 1000 visitors. And as the organisers didn't hit it off with the venue owners, François-Xavier offered to let them organise the next one at the Domaine de Péné. This was held in June 1996 and attracted 1200 visitors- yet François-Xavier felt the organisers were motivated by the profits rather than a love of plants, and he decided to organise the next Fête himself.

Domaine de Pere

He started with 15 exhibitors in 1996 and each year he found others through word of mouth until, ten years later, he had established a reputation for a holding a serious, high quality, authentic botanical fair - that now attracts 10,000 visitors a year. "Creating a successful event is rather like making a spider's web: you begin small and gradually increase in size- and have to be determined to succeed." Indeed, he could have many more exhibitors, but he makes a careful selection, putting creativity and top quality foremost.

Half of the 110 stalls in the June version of the Fête are made up of botanists with their superb and unusual collections from everywhere in the world, no specialist being doubled by another. In this category you can find Sebastien Guillot from Vibrac in the Charente a fuchsia collector who travels to South America every winter in discovery of new varieties; hydrangea and hortensia collector Joel Robin from the Tours area; tree specialists Myriam and Vincent Grellier from the Vienne, who offer 80 species of oak and 60 species of maple, all grown from seeds from the countries of origin; and British perennial collector John Worrall with his wife Carol Strafford, who has worked at Kew gardens.

Domaine de Pere 5

Pottery from Kew - exhibited by Melle's 'La Porte Bleue' dealer Violette Gurr features in the other part of the Fête, which is an alternative expression of creativity through paintings, sculptures, artistic garden furniture and artisans boasting natural and organic products. Here, you'll be able to enter the ground floor of Xavier's 35-room home, rearranged to host artists, stylists and sculptures within its ancient walls. And in the little chapel a golden surprise mixed with poetry may well await this year's visitors.

Out in the chai, your sense of smell is treated to the delights of spices from all over the world at Christine Latour's stand; opposite, the association La Voie des Fleurs have an amazing collection of tropical seeds and fruit in the form of an educational stall at which you'll want to spend a good hour gazing at and handling nature's extraordinary wonders; and the pro-biodiversity association Kokopelli, who conserve seeds from ancient vegetable species to prevent them disappearing, are also present. You'll find beauty products from Flore de Saintonge, traditional condiments, jams and other foodstuffs and, last but not least, nettle expert author Bernard Bertrand, who can show you the hidden culinary secrets of the nettle.

François-Xavier obviously loves his Domaine, his plants and the Fête that he has worked so hard to make into a success. "Plants are a passionate matter, and I have made close friends with many of the exhibitors. It also gives me great pleasure to bring the Domaine to life, it having been closed up tor centuries."

The nature-loving public have a lot to thank this artist-come-botanist for. As an unknown local man said when he saw François-Xavier in the village shop: "You may not know me, but we have one thing in common - we both love the Domaine de Péré.”

 

CONTACT DETAILS:

Domaine de Péré

79360 Prissé-la-Charrière

Tel: 05 49 09 71 32

Website

Email: contact (at) fetedesplantespere.fr

PUBLISHED IN LIVING POITOU-CHARENTES DECEMBER 2009