The “fishing walls” of the Parisian suburbs offer a glimpse of its horticultural past


Walk around the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil today and clues still abound of the area’s former fame in an industry more commonly associated with the countryside.

Rue Girardot, initiator of fruit growing in Montreuil in the 17th centurywe read on a street sign, named after the knight and musketeer Etienne Girardot, who became a gardener and inaugurated a fruit-growing tradition there that would last nearly four centuries.

The road emerges on rue de Rosny, the axis that connects Bas Montreuil to Haut Montreuil, where a row of traditional houses offers an additional glimpse. Once owned by local horticulturists, one of the properties still discreetly sports a pulley.

On the Haut Montreuil plateau, 37 hectares of gardens are all that remains of the once flourishing culture covering 720 of the village’s 930 hectares.

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As early as 1650, farmers built enclosures there in which they experimented with fruit-growing techniques more typical of warmer climates, including peaches.

These walls, called peach walls, were built and positioned to capture as much sunlight as possible during the day and release heat at night. The walls also protected the harvest from the wind.

As early as 1650, farmers built enclosures here where they experimented with fruit-growing techniques Pic: Mike Dilien / provided by author

This configuration created microclimates with temperatures up to 12°C higher than the environment. In 1750, 600 of the 800 families of Montreuil cultivated fishing.

“It was a fairly expensive business, says Jacques Fantini who, for more than 20 years, restored such walls.

Postcards of Montreuil at the beginning of the 20th century show a labyrinth of 300km of peach walls. As both sides of the walls were used, some sources of information cite 600 km.

At its peak, Montreuil produced 12 million peaches a year, of more than 400 different varieties.

Emile Zola evokes the peaches of Montreuil and local fruits in the spotlight at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even Walt Disney visited the peach walls.

Montreuil had become a brand.

The development of this culture to the east of Paris is twofold: the geography and the geology of Montreuil. At the time, it was difficult to package and transport fruit over long distances.

Since the installation of the royal court in Vincennes, Paris had become a large and rich market. The fruit was a luxury product and its high selling price justified the investment in buildings and labour.

The walls themselves were covered with a thick layer of plaster, made from gypsum, which caught the heat of the sun. No wonder then to learn that further down the road was a gypsum quarry.

The walls were covered with a thick layer of plaster, which caught the heat of the sun Pic: Mike Dilien / provided by the author

Today, the peaceful greenery of Parc des Beaumonts makes it easy to forget that it was once a place of noisy activity.

In addition to well-oriented hills and abundant gypsum, the Montreuil plateau also had several watercourses: large quantities of water are essential for the development of an agricultural industry.

Impasse du Gobétue takes its name from one of these streams. In Montreuil in full urbanization, this dead end is an oasis of greenery and tranquility where Mr. Fantini, who has lived here all his life, remembers his mother washing their clothes.

The steady decline of Montreuil’s fruit industry meant that by the 1990s flourishing orchards and immaculately tended home gardens decayed into wasteland and soils were heavily polluted.

Several associations have been formed to protect the heritage of Montreuil. One of them, Murs à Pêches (MAP), dates from 1994 and has so far succeeded in saving 8.5 hectares of enclosure.

The real gem is Patrick Fontaine’s garden, which has been hailed as the most beautiful in Ile-de-France and features 40 forms of trellised trees.

“It kills me,” he says of the effort it took to maintain the plot, for which he failed to find a successor.

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However, working the fruit trees of Montreuil has never been easy.

Families would get up between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. to start work. At night, when heavy rain or hail fell, they covered the trees with blankets.

Every other fruit was removed to allow the remaining fruit to grow larger, and fruit growers weighed and brushed each peach.

Every year, the women washed the linen strips that held the trees to the walls, and also disinfected the trees.

Both sides of the walls were used to grow peaches Pic: Mike Dilien / provided by author

Fruit growers packed each growing fruit in a paper bag.

In winter, while the men cleaned the garden and trellised the trees, the women and children prepared 10,000 of these bags.

The local clay soil has also proven itself. In summer, it becomes almost watertight, requiring constant stirring.

Today, many of these local horticultural traditions are still upheld, and growers can learn more at the nearby Jardin-Ecole.

It was founded in 1921 by the Society of Horticulturists of Montreuil to train Montreuil farmers and provide a place to experiment with new techniques.

The school taught students how to train and graft trees. To maximize efficiency, they trained their trees in a variety of shapes, experimenting with candelabra, cross, and fan shapes, as well as goblet, palm, spindle, and double U. he school still has a pear tree in the shape of a candelabrum dating from 1920. .

The former classroom now houses an interesting museum displaying several devices invented specifically for horticulturists, as well as medals and awards.

It also discusses how the peaches of Montreuil became famous for the distinctive marks affixed to them.

Paper bags placed over each fruit in June kept them from changing color in the sun.

When the bag was removed, a paper stencil was applied with gelatin. The peach previously covered in color more than a naturally grown fruit, so stenciling while still pale brought out the design beautifully.

Besides helping the fruit look good, bagging also protected it from pests and weather.

It allowed the skins from the Montreuil harvest to remain delicate, which made them even more appetizing.

At the end of the 1990s, ethnologist Jacques Brunet interviewed the last descendants of horticultural families.

Many families come from internal migrants who settled in Montreuil to work there as day laborers.

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None of the interviewees, who were all of retirement age, showed an appetite for doing the same grueling job a second time.

“We weren’t allowed to be sick,” said a 96-year-old man. “As a young girl, I watched my parents go to the gardens in the cold and the rain, even when they had the flu.”

Below the orchards, 3 rue Danton once belonged to one of these families, the Savards. In his attic, Mr. Brunet discovered 400 negatives.

This collection of photographs is the only one illustrating the horticultural industry in Montreuil before 1914 and today belongs to the neighboring museum.

Until the 1960s, the society of horticulturists of Montreuil was installed in the building, which had a large garden.

Today, a building adjoins the property and its narrow driveway, while the house is home to a homeless association.

Meanwhile, upstream and behind the orchards, runs the rue de Saint-Antoine.

Here, although the old walls have been preserved, they are in a sorry state. Since the 1950s, travelers have lived in the enclosures, often cutting holes in the walls to stuff trailers through.

The evolution map of the peach walls Photo: Mike Dilien / provided by the author

Number 60, however, is referred to as a remarkable garden. After Montreuil farmers could no longer compete with peaches, apples and pears, they instead turned to growing flowers.

Montreuil’s last horticulturist, Geneviève Pouplier, cultivated flowers there until 2003.

A sequence of maps detailing the evolution of the enclosures shows that by 1936 cultivation had already passed its peak. Railways had made the fisheries of the Mediterranean much cheaper, and greenhouses proved to be more efficient than walls.

The last blow came in 1969, when the main fruit and vegetable market in Paris left Les Halles.

For fruit growers in Montreuil, who traditionally rose before dawn to travel the eight kilometers to Paris to sell their produce, the market’s move to Rungis, nearly 10 kilometers away, was devastating.

These days you can still buy peaches in Montreuil from the local supermarket. These are foreign imports and they are sold by the kilo.

These peaches may not be big and crimson red like those of Montreuil Fat Cute.

They also don’t look like nipple of venuswith its pointed nipple, yellowish skin and white flesh.

But they are cheap.

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