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Poitou-Charentes fruit and vegetables

The soil of the Poitou-Charentes is well known for being ideal for growing many crops from grapes to sunflower. Here, Trevor Bridge tells us about the other regional specialities you don't want to miss trying to grow in your own potager...

Sweet and succulent Charentais melons are savoured in many parts of the world, and those mouth-watering new potatoes from the ÎIe de Ré are legendary throughout France. But how many other vegetables are associated with our region? It is useful to know which plants are grown commercially, as this is a good indicator that they should be suitable for our potagers.

'Charentais' melons

Melon cultivation became important during the 16th century west of Châtellerault in the Vienne. By the 20th century, production had spread southwards to the Marais Poitevin in the Deux-Sèvres and around Rochefort in the Charente-Maritime. During the 1960s, the use of plastic lengthened the growing season and increased productivity, so cultivation increased. Poitou-Charentes is now the biggest melon producer in France.

The 'Cantaloup de Bellegarde' variety was originally cultivated here, but it was supplanted by the 'Charentais', a larger fruit that preserves better and has a greater consistency. The 'Maîtres du melon du Haut Poitou' is a syndicate that was formed to promote production, and 'Les Melons du Haut Poitou' were the first French melons to be given an 'Indication Géographique Protégée' (IGP), which provides official European protection of a geographical origin.

When purchasing seeds, look for 'type Charentais' on the packet description.


Potato / Pomme de terre de l'ÎIe de Ré

In the Charente-Maritime the first commercial potato crop of the year is the sweet AOC designated 'pomme de terre de l'Île de Ré'. It demands a high price from early May to the end of June, but hopefully you will be eating your own even fresher and tastier crop. The island has exceptional soils and a mild sunny climate and the crop is harvested early to limit the presence of starch. Five different varieties are grown: Alcmaria, Starlette, Roseval, Charlotte and Amandine. We don't all have such ideal conditions for growing potatoes, but at Le Fayard, where we have heavy clay, we grow many varieties successfully. It's worth experimenting to see which ones suit your plot best.

Seed potatoes have such labels as précoce, hâtive and tardive. Précoce and hâtive both mean early and tardive means late. Planting times are not critical and depend on conditions, but generally we plant très précoce from the end of February, précoce from mid-March, and demi-tardive and tardive from late March.

Carrot / Carotte de Jarnac-Champagne

The small commune of Jarnac-Champagne in the Charente-Maritime is home to the 'Carotte de Jarnac-Champagne'. Grown by a handful of producers, it owes its excellence to the superb local soil. Tender and sweet, juicy and crisp, this carrot is known as 'véritable miel souterrain' – genuine underground honey. These carrots are prized by local chefs, and feature in many gourmet menus.

There are, of course, many different types of soil across our region and growing your own carrots will depend upon your conditions. Carrots prefer light soil with lots of well-rotted organic material and if you have these conditions two old French varieties, 'Chantenay' and 'Nantes', are worth growing. Carrots grown on heavy or stony soil will normally become misshapen and forked. However, French varieties such as 'Oxheart' and 'French Round' have been bred to overcome these problems.

'Chantenay' is a large carrot up to 20 cm long with a 'natural' sweet flavour, said to be 'as carrots used to taste'. Its production had decreased, but with the renewed interest in old varieties it is undergoing a revival. It stores well in winter.

'Nantes' carrots were described in the 1885 Vilmorin catalogue as 'sweet and mild in flavour with a cylindrical root and smooth skin'. This medium sized variety remains a favourite due to its good culinary qualities.

'Oxheart' dates back to the late 19th century. These are short, thick carrots 15 cm long by 10 cm in diameter and can quickly reach 500 g in weight. They have an excellent taste, store well and thrive in heavy soils.

'French Round' are small, spherical carrots up to golf ball size, which are fast maturing, take up little space and grow well in heavy soils. They are bright orange with a silky smooth skin and are crunchy, sweet and fun for children to grow in their own vegetable plot.

Chicorée frisée de Ruffec

This is an old variety of curly endive that has been grown since the 1860s. Originating in the Charente, it is very tasty with a heart of curly, white, crisp leaves, good for salads as well as for steaming or boiling. Sown from April to July as a succession crop, it is easy to grow and is a hardy plant noted for its tolerance to cold and wet. In fact, it grows better in cooler weather as a spring and autumn crop, and in frost-free southern areas it is a favourite winter crop when other vegetables are scarce. It can become bitter if grown in high temperatures or left to bolt. Reduce bitterness by blanching: cover the plants for the last couple of weeks with a basket or pot. The leaves will turn pale green and will be sweeter.

Mojhette beans / haricots

Mojhette beans are small, pearly-white kidney beans with a delicious taste and a fine skin. They are grown in the marshlands of the Deux-Sèvres and the Charente-Maritime, where they were established after agricultural drainage reclamation of 1833-45.

There are two distinct types:

'Rognons de l'Oise' are grown in the lush and productive Marais Poitevin wetlands of Deux-Sèvres. This variety is the less common of the two as they only keep for about 48 hours after picking, but they reputedly have a superior taste.

'Mojhettes de Pont l'Abbé' are grown in the Arnoult valley between Marennes and Rochefort, which is fertile market gardening land that floods in winter, enriching the soil with sediment. They preserve better than 'Rognons de l'Oise', are more attractive and easier to shell, but are said to be less tasty.


Échalion 'Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou'

The échalion belongs to the onion family and has a rosy colour with white flesh. It is not to be confused with the échalote (shallots) or scallion, an American term for spring onion. Its shape resembles a chicken leg, hence its French name, and it is soft in texture with a delicious slightly sweet taste, somewhere between a shallot and an onion.

The échalion was brought to Lencloître in the Vienne during World War 2 by refugees from the Moselle. Until the 1950s it was only cultivated in family gardens, but it began to be grown more and traded at local markets. Its production increased in the 1990s, thanks to local farmers. In order to remove any ambiguity with the shallot, the term 'Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou' was used and, in 1994, the commercial name of échalion was taken. It is also marketed as 'Échalion 'Zebrune'.

Leek / Poireau 'Gros Jaune du Poitou'

Leeks, a frequent sight in vegetable plots, are grown throughout the region. They are versatile with a milder, sweeter flavour than onions and a smooth texture similar to asparagus – in France, leeks are known as the 'asperge du pauvre' (poor man's asparagus). There are two types: earlies, which are less hardy and harvested from late summer; and maincrop, which are harvested in winter through to spring. The earlies'Gros Jaune du Poitou' are large, quick growing leeks, long and broad with golden green leaves. Other earlies include 'Electra', which can be harvested from July, and 'Mammoth Blanch', which crop from autumn to early winter. 'Bleu d'Hiver' and 'Bleu de Solaise' are blue-leaved French maincrop varieties, which can be harvested through to spring. These are especially useful in winter when there is little fresh produce available. Although leeks can be grown from seed sown from March to May under glass and transplanted between June and August, we find it easier and more successful to buy the readily available young plants.


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