In 2006 I went to the Château de Bourdaisière to interview Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie, aka Le Prince Jardiner, about his world-famous Tomato Conservatory for France Magazine’s Loire Valley edition. The only thing I knew about the Prince Jardinier was that he had a fancy boutique in Paris selling luxury gardening tools and accessories. But his quest for joie de vivre goes a lot deeper than pretty packaging.
The Prince: Encouraging a New Brand of Joie de Vivre
Strolling through his garden in early spring, Louis-Albert de Broglie surveys the neatly raked plots of soil, where chestnut branches are tied together to form the whimsical and sturdy structures that will support his tomatoes. The seedlings are still in the greenhouse, waiting for the last risk of frost to pass, but the garden is already coming to life with blooming tulips and beds of sprouting herbs. He bends down to pick a few mint leaves and inhales the scent, much like any gardener would. But this is no ordinary gardener, and this is not your average vegetable patch. Prince de Broglie is the youngest in a long line of illustrious French aristocrats including three military marshals, two prime ministers—even a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
After spending a privileged childhood in Normandy, de Broglie graduated from business school and worked for a large French bank for almost eight years, traveling the world from Mexico to India. In 1991 his older brother, Prince Philippe-Maurice, asked him to join him in purchasing and restoring a 15th-century château in the Loire Valley with the goal of opening it to the public. “At first I was hesitant, but when I saw the property, I fell in love with it,” recalls the Prince. Built by François I, the Château de la Bourdaisière is situated within a UNESCO World Heritage site located between Amboise and Tours. It’s surrounded by 140 acres of land including forested trails, a vineyard and a 19th-century kitchen garden. When they bought the property, the plot was overgrown with weeds, but de Broglie found himself irresistibly drawn to it, inspired by memories of his grandmother’s cottage garden. While the renovations to turn the château into a 21-room hotel were taking place, he concentrated his energies on the garden. “At first I planted a little bit of everything: heirloom vegetables, flowers, herbs….” Eventually he focused on his favorite plant, the tomato, and a respectable collection of 50 varieties quickly grew to an impressive 300.
“When I found out there were 10,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world, I thought it was so amazing that there are now only six or seven varieties available on the market,” marvels de Broglie. “I wanted to reintroduce this diversity to the public. Not all tomatoes are red and round!”
The National Tomato Conservatory
In 1995 the garden evolved into the National Tomato Conservatory (Conservatoire National de la Tomate), with a unique collection of more than 650 varieties, the largest in Europe. On the ancient stone walls surrounding the garden are enlarged photographs of some of the more impressive-looking specimens, taken for his recently published coffee-table book, Tomates d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui. Shot against a stark white background for a contemporary look, each one is shown in profile and cut in half. He points to the yellow “Pineapple” tomato, which does indeed look like a pineapple when sliced open. Others are creamy white, striped green or blackish purple (“my favorite,” says the Prince). “It’s such a simple food to enjoy,” he says with a smile, explaining his passion for this humble fruit. “You can just pick one off the vine and eat it right away with a bit of salt and olive oil.”
And this, more than anything, may be the key to the secret of the Loire Valley’s art de vivre: simplicity, quality, joy. Known as the Jardin de France since the 16th century, the region has an amazing quality of light and a mild climate where highly prized fruits and vegetables are grown, including grapes for Loire Valley wines.
“Art de vivre could be considered a harmonious way of living inspired by a particular time period and a combination of place and style,” says the Prince, adding that art de vivre is really a state of mind. “You can’t buy that, only the products that evoke certain places and eras.”
Guided by tradition, quality and the idea that what’s useful can also be beautiful, he decided to re-create the handmade gardening tools and accessories of his grandparents’ generation, using only “noble and simple” materials such as iron, wood, brass, all-natural cotton and jute. He emblazoned these products with a tongue-in-cheek logo that incorporated his family coat of arms with a spade, straw hat and his new nickname, “Le Prince Jardinier.”
“I originally designed these items to be used at the château,” he says. “I never thought they would become a collection!” But the elegant tools and flattering gardening clothes were quickly discovered by upscale boutiques in Paris, then displayed at the Chelsea Flower show, finally crossing the Atlantic to grace the windows at Bergdorf ’s in New York. The collection was soon so popular that in 1999, the first Prince Jardinier boutique opened in Paris, appropriately located in the Jardins du Palais Royal, where the young Louis XIV spent his childhood.
Biodiversity and Sustainable Development
Today the brand is sold in more than 200 boutiques in 15 countries. But the commercial success of the Prince Jardinier brand and the brothers’ Château de la Bourdaisière hasn’t diverted de Broglie, a dedicated environmentalist at heart, from his mission to educate the public on the importance of biodiversity and sustainable development.
For him, responsible stewardship of the planet is just another way of preserving the art de vivre that enhances our quality of life. In 2001 the Prince saved the historic Deyrolle boutique from closure. Opened in 1831 and located on the rue du Bac since 1888, Deyrolle has a long tradition of natural history education with its exotic collections of taxidermied animals, rare insects and fossils, and illustrated poster boards used throughout France since 1866 for teaching botany, zoology and anatomy. Having carefully restored the boutique’s authentic charm, the Prince now plans on issuing a new collection of 100 poster boards focusing on the conservation of wetland species and plants. “The original boards explained the mysteries of the earth,” he says. “Now they’ll explain how to protect the earth.”
Back in the Loire Valley, he uses the Château de la Bourdaisière to continue his mission on two fronts. Visitors and hotel guests are educated through the tomato museum and boutique, where they can participate in tastings or purchase seed packets to grow the rare varieties back home. Those lucky enough to visit in September can attend the annual Tomato Festival, when the garden is at its finest.
The château doesn’t grow tomatoes to sell to the general public, but the Tomato Conservatory’s role as a place of research and exchange among scientists and commercial growers has, according to the Prince, “convinced some of the major producers to plant more heirloom varieties.” He also puts the vast château grounds to good use by hosting an annual open-air photography exhibition. Enlarged prints are set up along the winding forest trails, and the theme is always biodiversity, whether in the plant or the animal world. Last year’s “Earth From Above” featured the aerial photographs of Yann Arthus-Bertrand. This year’s exhibit, “1,000 Families: The Family Album of Planet Earth,” features Uwe Ommer’s photographs of families from more than 150 countries who best reflect their society’s traditions and social conditions.
After 14 years, I finally got to return to the Château de la Bourdaisière again two weeks ago while passing through the Loire Valley on vacation. There are now over 700 varieties of tomatoes (planted with flowers, vegetables and herbs – including a dozen different kinds of basil!), a Dahlia garden with over 300 varieties of dahlias, and an open-air Bar à Tomates, and an orchard. The Prince Jardinier’s commitment to biodiversity and conservation is still central to his mission. His Paris boutique Deyrolle now sells a growing collection of educational poster boards, Deyrolle pour l’Avenir (Deyrolle for the Future), focused on sustainable development in all its aspects, from beekeeping to renewable energy to microcredit. In 2013 he created an experimental micro-farm at Château de la Bourdaisière as part of the Fermes d’Avenir, an ambitious project to develop a new model of agriculture based on the principles of agroecology and permaculture. The public can sign up for classes to learn everything about getting started in organic farming and permaculture, and how to start your own micro-farm.
Le Château de la Bourdaisière
Tel +33(0)2 4745 1631
The gardens and Tomato Conservatory are open to the public from April through October from 11am-6pm (from 10am-7pm May through September). Entry is €7.50 (free for kids under 10). The gift shop and Tomato Bar are open depending on the weather (best to call ahead if you have your heart set on either). Guided tours usually take place weekdays at 11am and 3pm, but there’s also a map with some details available in English when you purchase your ticket (here’s another brochure you can download).
There are several events throughout the year, but the biggest one is the annual Tomato Festival in September (for 2020 it will be the weekend of September 12-13).