Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

The peach walls of Montreuil

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

Even though the heat of July has mellowed into late August cool, I’m still craving the warm, sweetly perfumed white and yellow-fleshed peaches that arrive at the markets in Paris from the south of France. But nearly 150 years ago, Parisians stocked up on peaches that came from right here in Paris, or at least, in the neighboring suburb of Montreuil.

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 ?)

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

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.

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

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.)

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

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.

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

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 and lemon verbena sorbet

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.

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

Peaches and lemon verbena make for a delightfully light, fresh combination, perfect for the dog days of August.

My fresh lemon verbena comes from the workshop where I give my cooking classes. Its small yard is chock-full of fresh herbs like thyme, sage, mint, and even arugula, blackberries, and a small but fast-growing fig tree (behind the lemon verbena in the photo).

If you have a garden, it’s worth growing some lemon verbena in a sunny place near a door – every time you brush past the plant’s leaves, especially in the early evening after the long August day’s heat (but quickly shortening as we approach fall and back-to-school, sigh), they’ll fill the air with their lemony fragrance.

If you can’t find any fresh lemon verbena, no worries : you can use dried leaves. You can order them from the Monterey Bay Spice Company or with Harney and Sons. Here in France, you can find them in many pharmacies or in an herboristerie, since many people keep the leaves on hand to make a refreshing after-dinner infusion, or herbal tea. Lemon verbena is a fantastic digestion aid, and even acts as a mild sedative, perfect for sending your guests home ready for bed !

Peach and lemon verbena sorbet

ingredients :
- ¾ cup (150g) sugar
- ½ cup + ⅛ cup (150ml) water
- 2 9-inch (23cm) branches fresh lemon verbena, washed, or 2 handfuls dried lemon verbena leaves
- about 1 pound, 8 ounces (700g) fresh, ripe peaches, washed well

special equipment : electric or hand-crank ice-cream maker

how to make it :
1. The day before you plan on making the sorbet, if you’re using an electric ice-cream maker, place the bowl in the freezer.
2. Combine the sugar and the water in a small casserole, and heat just to boiling over medium heat. Stirring well, boil for about 3-4 minutes, or until the sugar is fully dissolved.
3. Pick out 6 of the prettiest verbena leaves for the decor, and reserve in the refrigerator.
4. Add the remaining lemon verbena leaves to the syrup and push them down with a spoon, making sure they are fully submerged in the syrup. Cover the casserole and let the leaves infuse for 20 minutes.
5. In the meantime, cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Then cut them again into quarters. Using a wand mixer or a blender, purée the peaches well. (You should end up with about 4½ cups (1115g) of purée.)
6. Strain the peach purée through a fine-mesh strainer. You’ll have to stir and press quite a bit to force the purée through, and you’ll be left with bits of peach skin, which you can discard.
7. Remove the verbena leaves from the syrup, scraping off as much syrup as you can, and discard the leaves. Add the infused syrup to the peach purée, stir well, and refrigerate, covered, for 2-4 hours.
8. When you’re ready to make the sorbet, pour the purée into the ice-cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
9. Once the mixture is done churning, it will be homogenous but still very soft and slightly slushy. This is normal, because there’s a lower sugar content in this sorbet than in many. (I like desserts with a little less sugar.) Transfer the sorbet into a container that can go in the freezer, and freeze for about ½ hour.
10. Serve in small bowls or in sorbet coupes, and decorate with the verbena leaves. Bon app’ !

makes a scant liter of sorbet, or about 6 servings

Tags : peaches , lemon verbena , Montreuil , Montreuil peach walls


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Paul Dymond 27 août 2015

I’ll make it. Thanks. See you soon. X

jocelyn 7 septembre 2015

wowwaaouuhwawooooh ! Awesome ! Thank you so much for your article.

Allison Zinder 8 septembre 2015

You’re welcome, and thank you for reading !

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