The Montreuil peach walls, or murs à pêches, date from the 15th, 16th, or 17th centuries, depending on who you talk to. One thing is sure: peaches have been cultivated in France since the Middle Ages, when they were first imported from China. (Paper, porcelain, the domestication of peaches: what didn’t the Chinese invent?)
17 million peaches
The Montreuil peach orchards supplied the royal appetites of the court at nearby Château de Vincennes, and just like Champagne, any product associated with royalty gained instant popularity. Louis XIV was also a fan, even though he proceeded to grow 33 peach varieties of his own at Versailles, including the Téton de Vénus, or Venus’ Nipple. It’s hardly surprising that variety was so popular.
After the French Revolution, the production of peaches in Montreuil really took off, and even the Queen of England and Russian czars were importing peaches from Montreuil. The abolition of feudal privileges and the sale of clerical lands after the Revolution meant that by 1880, about 600 kilometers of walls were being used to grow 17 million peaches. That’s a helluva lot of peaches. In fact, there were so many that the town’s official name, Montreuil-sous-Bois, was no longer used: people nicknamed their town Montreuil-aux-Pêches!
To adapt the fruit to cold northern temperatures, the peach-growing method used in Montreuil was unique. Orchards contained walls covered in white plaster. (If you read this post, you’ll remember that plaster was being produced from gypsum quarries all over eastern Paris.)
The thick walls were built in a north-south direction, so direct morning and afternoon sun would heat each side of the wall. At night, the walls gave off this accumulated heat, creating a micro-climate in which the delicate peaches were protected from the cold and could ripen. Pretty smart, those Montreuillois.
Caravans and stray cats
Unfortunately the Industrial Revolution spelled the end of peach production in Montreuil. By the late 1800s, the Paris-Lyon-Marseille train line was hauling peaches from the south to the central Les Halles market much earlier in the season, at a cheaper price, and suddenly the Montreuil peaches became an anachronism.
But the peach walls are still there! Not all of them of course, and many are in a state of ruin. But 35 hectares (86 acres) make up a funny little area of Montreuil located near the impasse Gobetue, between a cemetery and a couple of tired, badly-paved streets, complete with caravans and stray cats. These streets are the stomping ground of a handful of gens du voyage or Roma/Romani people, otherwise (and crudely) known as gypsies.
If you saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a few years back, you might remember Noomi Rapace’s character Madame Simza, the (ahem) “gypsy” fortune-teller. She leads Holmes and Watson to the anarchist group’s headquarters, which was most likely nestled in among the peach walls of Montreuil.
Peach wall clown
Last May marked the 15th anniversary of the annual Peach Wall Festival, with over 3000 visitors. On a Sunday afternoon, some friends and I wandered among the white walls, which were covered with espaliered peach trees and their then-tiny fruit. Flowers grew everyplace in between: they harken back to when peach growers also cultivated irises, lilacs, peonies, grapes, and raspberries to earn extra income. Up until Les Halles closed in 1969, there was even a special pavilion there dedicated to products from Montreuil!
Nowadays, several organizations, like the Peach Wall Federation, are working hard to preserve the site from threats of destruction by property developers and other urbanization plans. The Federation also raises awareness in a charming and fun way.
The Peach Wall Festival featured concerts and other musical activities, marionette shows for kids, food stands, and hands-down the strangest clown I’d ever seen. Stand back, kids! It’s hard to tell whether they’re impressed, or if they think this guy just looks way too scary to be real. Maybe it’s a little of both, but he was definitely rockin’ those peach walls!
The Montreuil peach walls are open to the public on Sundays from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm. The closest metro is Mairie de Montreuil, and then it’s a good hike to the end of the impasse Gobetue where you can enter the walled gardens.
Thanks go to François Poupeau whose article was very helpful in researching mine!
And for more articles (in French) see the blog of the Association Murs à Pêches.