A Garden to Defy the Seasons

Enjoy a chapter of a translated fictional account of the Sun King’s kitchen gardenerâ—and peek into the intrigues of high society in 17th-century France

View of the Orangerie in 1695 as painted by Étienne Allegrain and Jean-Baptiste Martin
View of the Orangerie in 1695 as painted by Étienne Allegrain and Jean-Baptiste Martin Wikimedia Commons

How else could a king prove himself a monarch by divine right but by mastering nature's growing seasons? In his quest to have at his table the most succulent of fruits and the most delectable of vegetables, Louis XIV commanded the renowned and meticulous gardener Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie to serve as his director for the Potager du Roi, or the King's Kitchen.

In his five-year stewardship of the garden, La Quintinie is credited with introducing numerous botanical innovations. He devised hotbeds of compost to overcome the frost and to accelerate growth, and he had the garden constructed as a grid of masonry enclosures to shelter delicate plants from harsh winds. Among other things, he was able to extend the harvest season at Versailles and provide the king's table with garden produce six months of the year.

In an intriguing French novel that has recently been translated into English, first-time author Frédéric Richaud paints a colorful fictionalized portrait of the historical La Quintinie. The following excerpt from Richaud's Gardener to the King (Arcade Publishing, 1999) introduces the horticulturist as a man dedicated to his garden, even as he harbors a growing dissatisfaction with the extravagance of life in the court of the Sun King, whose great and all-encompassing power he would eventually defy.

August 1674. At Versailles all the talk was of war. After the King's dazzling victory over Holland and what was seen as its overweening ambition, his two best generals, though formerly enemies, now joined forces to halt the European coalition that had just burst through France's northern borders. At Seneffe in Belgium the once-rebellious Prince de Condé was holding back the onslaughts of William of Orange. The flaring up of the campaign in the Low Countries filled the air with the clamour of drums, artillery and the cries of men. Each side counted its dead in thousands.

Day after day the gardens and galleries of Versailles seemed to echo with the din of battle or with the fainter but perhaps more terrible sound of flints whetting German blades. For twenty-four hours distraction might be provided and fear allayed by some magnificent court entertainment, the beauty of Athénaïs de Rochechouart, the tinkling of fountains or the music of the divine Lully. But next day everyone would be anxious again: was the army still advancing, how many prisoners had been taken, how many standards captured from the enemy?

Condé [...] came to seem like [a hero] of [a] myth. It was said of Condé in particular that after three horses had died under him one day in battle against the Dutch, he had called for a fourth and charged on alone in pursuit of the fleeing enemy.

Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie was unconcerned by such agitations. He lent only half an ear to the gory tales people told him, and observed from a distance the growing unease at court and the messengers' ceaseless comings and goings. It wasn't that he took no interest in the progress of the war and the fate of its heroes. He knew Condé well and was glad to hear of the exploits that were bringing him fresh glory. But he had a war of his own to fight, a war that was long and silent, a war that nobody talked about.

La Quintinie's own grand manoeuvres had begun four years ago, after the King had relieved him of his duties to Fouquet and made him Steward of the Orchards and Kitchen Gardens of Versailles. The King's instructions had been quite clear. One day as he and his entourage were strolling along the paths designed by Le Nôtre, the monarch suddenly turned to his new gardener and said:

"Do you know what I expect from the artists who work for me, Monsieur de La Quintinie?"

"No, Sire."

"Perfection, monsieur—perfection. And, Monsieur de La Quintinie, you are an artist.

And that demand, those expectations, far from annoying La Quintinie, had won him over.

The three hectares for which he was responsible, and which, in the days before the great château was built, had supplied enough provisions for king and court after hunting parties and other country pleasures, had more recently had to be enlarged and redesigned to cope with heavier and more exacting requirements. Louis and his guests had taken to visiting Versailles more and more often once spring had arrived. So La Quintinie had improved the overall quality of the soil by the addition of clay, silica and chalk, and treated most of the beds with lime. He had new drains dug, and oversaw his men as they sowed seeds, built greenhouses and planted fruit trees.

Once the new soil started to bring forth its first products, ranging from the most familiar to the rarest of varieties, the struggle became more subtle but perhaps even more arduous—exhausting in summer when there was too little rain, and uncomfortable in autumn when there was too much, while in winter there was frost to be guarded against. All the year round the garden was threatened by predators—birds, mammals and insects. So the gardener had his own campaigns, his own devoted army, his own weapons of wood and steel, his own victories and defeats.

From the day he was appointed, La Quintinie was an object of curiosity. Little was known about him save that the King had taken a fancy to him and that some years ago he had abandoned the law and taken up horticulture. But why had he cut short what according to those who knew him then was set to be a brilliant career? Had he been influenced by a visit to the botanical gardens at Montpellier? Or by his travels in Tuscany and the country around Rome? No one knew. But wherever it was that fate dictated a new turning, everyone believed God must have been behind the revelation, so much pleasure did his work bring to the souls as well as the bodies of those who enjoyed its results.

Though most of the courtiers liked or even admired La Quintinie, some were jealous of the way the King went to visit him among his plants, sometimes spending hours watching him at work in a trench or up a tree. The gardener seemed oblivious of the royal presence.

Some said he was a Protestant, others that he was a former rebel and an avid reader of La Rochefoucauld's Memoirs. Others again accused him of atheism, alleging that they had heard him praising Vanini and his Admirandis Naturae. Once it was even rumoured that the letters he exchanged with eminent English and Italian botanists embraced matters other than seeds and technical discussions about how to grow radishes. The King, under pressure from those about him, once ordered Bontemps, his head valet, together with his blue-uniformed men, to spy on the gardener's doings for a few weeks. But they observed nothing out of the ordinary.

La Quintinie sometimes worked in his garden for days on end without putting in an appearance at court. And when his detractors did catch sight of him in one of the palace corridors they would take the opportunity to mock his lack of elegance. His rapid gait contrasted oddly with the awkwardness of his gestures. "He ought to engage the services of a dancing master." He went bareheaded and wore working clothes, with breeches, stockings and shoes all spattered with mud. "A tailor wouldn't come amiss, either." In the presence of those in high places he said little: you could tell he was only waiting for the moment when he could escape once more to his own domain. "Not to mention a tutor of rhetoric."

But as soon as he was in his kitchen garden again his pace grew more relaxed, his movements graceful and precise. He knew every plant and insect by name. In the evening, as the shadows lengthened, people would come to talk to him, to profit not only from his knowledge of fruit and vegetables and the seasons, but also from the simple wisdom he had learned from the world over which he ruled.

La Quintinie seldom joined in the lavish festivities the King continued, war or no war, to provide. Dazzling displays of horsemanship clearly bored the gardener. So did the tournaments in which Monsieur, the King's eldest brother, showed off his skill with the lance. La Quintinie often turned up, full of apologies, after the proceedings had begun, or sometimes when they were over. Occasionally he vanished just as Monsieur was about to make a particularly impressive charge.

"No doubt Monsieur de La Quintinie has something better to do."

"His work is very demanding..."

"Don't you think, Monsieur de Courtois, that I too would like to slip away whenever I felt like it from a tedious walk or an expensive game of cards?"

"Why don't you, then, my dear fellow?"

"Surely you know the rules? I know what would happen to me if I blithely abandoned my post. Have you forgotten what happened to the Comte de Rey a few months ago?"

"I know nothing of it. What did happen?"

"He made it a point of honour to appear at court as rarely as possible. He said he preferred his beloved countryside near Rouen. Then one day he needed to present a request to the King. And do you know what the King said to the official in charge of arranging audiences? ‘Monsieur le Comte de Rey?' he asked, when the list of petitioners was read to him. 'Never heard of him.' The story spread like wildfire, and everybody said they'd never heard of him either. So now he can enjoy his famous countryside to his heart's content. He hasn't a friend in the world."

A few weeks earlier the gardener had mingled with the crowd of peasants and seasonal workers who had gathered to watch the arrival of the court at Versailles. Though the sight was familiar by now it never ceased to fascinate him. The King's red coach, tossing up clouds of dust, drawn by six white horses and flanked by musketeers, drove into the great Cour de Marbre, the marble courtyard overlooked by the royal apartments. The King's coach was followed by a long line of carriages and an even longer procession of wagons and carts laden with cupboards, chandeliers, tables and marble busts. Slowly the crowd of travellers dispersed into the apartments and corridors of the château or disappeared along the garden paths.

At all hours of the day and sometimes even at night the palace was invaded by petitioners, tradesmen, workmen, flunkeys and an ever-growing number of prostitutes. Soon, despite daily cleaning, the gilt and stucco ornamenting the apartments and the grand staircases became impregnated with the smell of excrement.

But noise and odours alike, floating from the windows, faded away before they reached the kitchen garden.

It was harassing work, running the garden. Every morning for more than a month men had been going in and out of its various enclosures humping baskets of apples or oranges on their backs or carrying hurdles and stretchers laden with grapes, figs and pears. Wheelbarrows were needed to transport pumpkins and cabbages. But La Quintinie never wearied of supervising such work, though it might take several hours, depending on the size of the order. He examined all the boxes and baskets one by one, removing all imperfect specimens, which were sent to the royal stables or pheasantry. He neither knew nor cared what happened to his produce once it left his garden. If anyone asked the reason for this indifference he would shrug and say, "My fruit and vegetables go to feed humanity." The pride and pleasure he took in this simple certainty were enough for him.

In the evening, after the workmen had gone home, he often stayed on by himself, writing or sketching in one of the little notebooks he kept in his pocket. The garden needed to be made to yield much more. He would roam tirelessly back and forth along the box-lined paths, dreaming up new layouts, different crops, all kinds of improvements. It was usually late at night before he returned to his apartments.

People jested that one day his feet would sink into the earth, leaves and moss would sprout from his ears, and his arms would turn into branches.

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