Marmande, from Richard the Lion Heart to an iconic tomato – Meanderings through France n° 194
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
When asked about Marmande every French person will think and answer “tomato”! This tomato variety is the true emblem of this town where a generous sun allows an early natural ripening. It made its hometown famous throughout France and even beyond French borders. But Marmande also is a lovely southern town with a rich history and heritage where everyone can quickly feel at home.
After crossing the Atlantic Ocean on board of the conquistadors’ ships in the 16th century, tomatoes sneaked in Europe and were first used as ornamental or medicinal plants. It was not only 1863 when vineyards were destroyed by a phylloxera epidemic that tomatoes replaced vines, and they did it very well. In Marmande’s area they met ideal growing conditions and made the fortune of many farmers. There are today hundreds of tomato varieties, most of them being the fruits of human made hybridization. But the Marmande variety is the result of a spontaneous crossing between to ancient varieties, the Mikado and the Ponderosa. As usual nature achieved a small miracle by creating a tomato variety perfectly made to grow in this region. With its round shape, its thin and soft skin and its delicious sweet and sour taste the Marmande tomato soon became the queen of French tomatoes.
In the 1970’s in order to withstand the Spanish, Dutch and Belgium competition tomato growing dramatically changed in the region. Huge heated greenhouses appeared as well as soilless cultivation. Putting quantity before quality led to formatted tomatoes, cheap but with little taste. Fortunately a few farmers still believe in traditions and quality. When visiting this beautiful region you will be able to meet them on market places or in their shops opened in their farms and have the opportunity to eat and enjoy “real” tomatoes grown in real soil. Most of these farmers are organic growers and also grow other vegetables and fruits. Their beautiful stalls are full of colourful produce, a real pleasure to the eyes before being a pleasure of taste. (About thirty of these farmers gathered to create “Les Fermes de Garonne”, Garonne’s farms, and welcome customers in their farms. Addresses and info at https://www.vg-agglo.com/a-la-decouverte-du-val-de-garonne/fermes-de-garonne/).
To make it easy you can simply go to Marmande on a Saturday morning. The Saturday weekly market takes place on the central square of town and you will have plenty of time in the afternoon to visit this lovely city.
Marmande area was inhabited since the Gallo-Roman era but it was not until 1182 that Richard the Lion Heart, Duke of Aquitaine, founded the town. Ideally located at the crossing of trade roads with the Garonne River it soon became very wealthy before being besieged and ruined twelve times during the Hundred Years War. Destroyed and rebuilt several times its architecture shows all these different periods. Walking through the pedestrian streets you will see medieval timbered facades, Renaissance houses with beautiful mullioned windows and sculpted porches as well as 18th century mansions built with a nice blend of stones and small bricks.
Notre-Dame de Marmande is the gothic style church of the town and the gardens of its cloister are a haven of peace where local people go to relax or enjoy romance. Don’t miss to visit the Tourism Office set in a wonderful 16th century house known as the “Maison du Prince Noir”, the “House of the Black Prince”. Its three wings surround a beautiful paved courtyard where the music of water from a fountain creates a quiet and soothing atmosphere. You can also relax on one of the sofa with a drink while watching a short film depicting the region and the Garonne River.
Marmande is only a one-hour drive from Bordeaux and on the way you will discover a beautiful region filled with lovely villages such as Duras, Nérac or Casteljaloux… This attractive region has much to offer and whether you like tomatoes or not doesn’t really matter!
More and practical info at: www.tourisme-lotetgaronne.com
Text & Photos ©Annick Dournes