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Photo courtesy of Marmande City Hall, Marmande, France.

French Tomatoes: The Marmande Example

The Tomato Magazine
October 2007

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, France’s great food historian, Brillat-Savarin, noted, “This vegetable or fruit, as one may call it, was almost wholly unknown in Paris 15 years ago.”

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. There’s even a hybrid described as “sensual and sophisticated” that’s 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 Pierre.

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 production.

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 owner, explains.

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. Therefs 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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