French Tomatoes: The Marmande Example
Photo courtesy of Marmande City Hall, Marmande, France.
The Tomato Magazine
By Susan Ludmer-Gliebe
A lthough the tomato arrived on European shores in the 16th century,
it took a surprisingly long time for the French to embrace the vegetable.
Unlike their Spanish and Italian neighbors who adopted the
tomato quickly and used it frequently in their respective cuisines, the
French remained wary of the New World import. Writing in 1803, Frances
great food historian, Brillat-Savarin, noted, This vegetable or
fruit, as one may call it, was almost wholly unknown in Paris 15 years
Commercial production of the tomato began in France in the 1860s, a result
of several signifi cant synergistic factors. The most important was, undoubtedly,
that huge swaths of the countryside were decimated by phylloxera beetles
that destroyed vineyards throughout France. Wine growers became desperate,
and many could not afford to wait to replant with phylloxera-resistent
stock, so they took to planting their fi elds with tomatoes. Secondarily,
the rail network developed allowing growers to get their products quickly
to consumers, especially those in the large cities in the north. Finally,
the invention of canning and pasteurization allowed for the commercial
development of conserved foods.
Today, France tomato production is approximately 850,000 tons on 50,000
acres. Irrigation is necessary in most of the country for the earlier
part of the growing process. National annual per capita consumption tops
22 pounds of fresh tomatoes and 12 pounds of processed tomatoes.
Historically, most of the commercial production was located in the southeast
of France, a region blessed with a dry, sunny Mediterranean climate. Towns
and cities like Barbentane, Chateaurenard, Mallemort and Marseille were
known then (as some still are) for their tomato production. But in the
more temperate and humid climate in the southwest of France, one name
alone stood out--Marmande. This attractive small city of 18,000 is, even
today, so associated with the tomato that the A-62 expressway exit sign
for Marmande displays a single large tomato, and in the center of town
sits an emblematic statue of a young maiden, Ferline, holding a tomato
in her delicate hand. Theres even a hybrid described as sensual
and sophisticated thats named after her.
Other varieties planted in Marmande include Apla, Quest, Telus, Baron,
Coeur de Bouef and two American varieties, Floradade and Count. The tomato
variety most representative and symbolic of Marmande is the round Saint
Marmande produces 40,000 tons of the total French tomato crop. What many
French consumers may not be aware of is that today 98 percent of the Marmande
crop is grown under glass; of that, 75 percent of the plants are grown
in soil-less conditions. The huge Perrinots Greenhouses in the southeast
of Marmande, covering some 45 acres, are the center of modern Marmande
But there are also small growers like the Marcon family of Virazeil, whose
farm lies three miles north of Marmande. On a June day under the roof
of a large hanger, the automated sorting machine is humming and boxes
of tomatoes are being prepared for shipment to stores around the country.
All the tomatoes are of the Trust variety, Alain Marcon, the
Taking a sample of the largest size, he places it on the scale: 560 grams
or about one and a half pounds. Marcon, who is a member of the Rougeline
group that includes 120 independent producers, explains that each box
of tomatoes is stamped with a number, indicating when and where the tomatoes
were picked and boxed. Quality control standards for all foods are very
high in France. The consumer and government both demand it. The tracking
system that Marcon uses helps to insure it.
Marmande growers point out that growing tomatoes under glass -- temperatures
at a constant 69 - 75o F; humidity between 75 and 85 percent -- create
optimal conditions for growth and minimal
possibilities for soil-born diseases. Therefs a big push in France
today to be "green," so even though the tomatoes are hardly
growing in natural conditions there is a desire to control disease using
ecologically appropriate means.
"More and more, in Marmande, they're using la 'elutte integre,'"
explains Marie-Helen Bonnauron, Marmande City Hall communications officer.
The term literally means "honest fight" and, in this case, translates
into using insect predators to control parasites like white fl y and tobacco
mosaic. But many French farmers wonder about their own "elutte integer,"
given the realities of the modern market place.
"The Italians pick their tomatoes when they're green, numbers 3 or
4," explains the elder Marcon as he displays a color code poster
used by growers to help determine when to harvest tomatoes. "But
we wait to harvest the tomatoes when they're 9 or 10," he says, pointing
to decidedly more mature plants.
More signifi cant for the Marmande growers are the pressures coming from
the south, Spain and Morocco, which have earlier harvest dates. Morocco,
especially, offers signifi cantly cheaper prices. Some of Marmande's problems
may be of the self-inflicted type, a not uncommon occurrence in a country
where entrenched thinking and resistance to change are not "bien
sur" or unknown.
Probably none of this matters to the 100,000 people who attend the Tomato
Fiesta each July in Marmande, a festival that pays homage to Ferline and
all those who love and support her.
© 2007 Columbia Publishing
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