We knew Fontainebleau was famed for its forest as well as for its castle, which housed all the kings of France who came to hunt but while we were out on a local gastronomic tour, we discovered something we had never heard. Fontainebleau and its neighbouring town of Thomery were once known for grapes of exceptional quality, enjoyed only by those who could afford them.
It appears that vineyards were planted in the region under Francois I in the 16th century but it wasn’t until the 1700’s that the Chasselas grape was introduced to the region of Thomery and Fontainebleau. If you’ve heard of it, you’ll know it can still be found primarily in Switzerland, the Loire Valley of France and in Germany. What’s interesting is that it was trained along sun-warmed stone walls covered by a small glass roof to protect the leaves from the rain and even placing bunches into paper bags with tiny holes for airflow to allow for optimum ripening.
The techniques used were so successful the grape became much-renowned, though not for wine as it is often used elsewhere, but as a table grape which commanded a much higher price at the time. What’s even more impressive was not that they could grow the grapes but that they further developed a technique to keep the grapes fresh far beyond picking season. Many homes were converted to include storage of the grapes on the second floor. Rooms were entirely dark, with airflow all the way around (think of nesting a room inside of a building with space between the exterior and interior walls to allow for said airflow.) Inside and along the walls were endless racks with small glass vials where a large piece of stem from each bunch of grapes was inserted into water along with a piece of charcoal to keep the water clean.
Handling of the grapes had to be very precise to ensure they didn’t touch the berries with their hands which would disturb the natural protection on the grape skins, they had to inspect for insects or disease before storage and they couldn’t allow the bunches to touch one another… just in case! Once they were in these dark rooms, they could be kept for months. The longer they could keep them, the higher the prices would rise so the goal was always to make it until at least Easter.
At one point grape growing was such a thriving industry there were more than 350km of trellis-covered walls in Thomery, which has now had their grape growing walls classified as a historical monument. Quickly take a look from above in google maps to see all the walls in the town, it’s rather impressive! You’ll notice the town is along the Seine river which allowed for easy access to Paris where most were sold.
Today in Thomery the houses are built between walls, some of which retain their grapevines for personal consumption and close to the town centre you can still find a few greenhouses from the 19th century which allowed for year-round production. It’s all quite impressive to think this was a culture that thrived locally into about the 1920’s before it started to fall into decline when foreign grapes started to become more available.
If you’re in Fontainebleau, you can still see evidence of the trellis-covered walls surrounding the chateau, which were lined with grapes strictly for the consumption of the royal court. Unfortunately many have recently been removed but the evidence is still easy to see and there was even a festival, La Treille du Roy, where they would celebrate the grape harvest at the castle with dancing and costumes even just a few short years ago.
Thomery continues to produce some grapes through a group of enthusiasts who are happy to share the ancestral methods. Unfortunately for us, the grapes this year weren’t optimal due to excessive rains all summer long but we still thoroughly enjoyed the visit.