Like most food lovers, I find vegetables beautiful — mostly for their color — but do I consider them objects of art? Not so much. Yet at the gardens of Château Villandry, located in the Loire valley — which we visited on a recent, drizzly Saturday — the idea of food as art has been elevated to a new level.
Villandry’s vegetable garden consists of nine geometrically plotted squares, planted in contrasting colors, like a checkerboard. It dates to the 16th century, when locals monks grew their vegetables in intricate patterns, interspersing them with rose bushes.
Purple cabbages edged by neatly trimmed box hedges.
A most orderly pumpkin patch, with each gourd perched on its very own stone tile; controlled bushels of celery flourish in the background.
Unlike their Renaissance ancestors, the vegetables planted here aren’t eaten. In fact, only 1% of the vegetables are harvested. Indeed, these plants are solely decorative — they are allowed to grow and mature past the point consumption, to enhance their beauty. It does seem wasteful, but as our tour guide pointed out (a bit defensively) the gardens attract many tourists to the village and region; in fact, the chateau is the village’s largest employer.
In this photo, taken from the top of the chateau’s tower, you can see blue rows of leeks, purple curly kale, bright green celery, and on the right, tiny, orange dots of pumpkins. Château Villandry dates to the 16th century, but the restoration of the house and gardens was begun in 1906 by a Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo and his Pittsburgh-steel-heiress wife, Ann Coleman; their offspring still own the property. While the house offers a semi-interesting glimpse into château life, the true draw here are the magnificent gardens, which were gorgeous even on the day of our gray November visit.