Discovering Marmande’s Tomatoes and Cafés

Discovering Marmande’s Tomatoes and Cafés

Here are the latest adventures from Beth and friends still finding amazing places in the heart of southwest France. This month and her sister Di discover the market town of Marmande, as they’ve heard they’re some fabulous tomatoes there…

"My sister, Di, had a suggestion.

“Do you want to come to Marmande? I’ll buy the coffees.”
“Where?”
“It’s a nice town in the Lot et Garonne, I have a meeting there.”
“I’m in!”

We set off on a blisteringly hot day, taking a country route west into the Buzet wine-making country. Their official vineyard is near Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne in southwest France, in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. It’s sandwiched between the Côtes du Marmandais and Brulhois appellations – a paradise for imbibers.

Verdant vineyards garnished with purple and green polka dots were spread-eagled as far as the eye could see. I was amazed.

“Goodness, just look at all those grapes!”
“Yep, and did you know that the Armagnac appellation is just south of us?”
“I knew it was around here somewhere.”
“And the Cahors vineyards are a little way northeast. In total, there are around 2,000 hectares of vineyards in the area.”

We settled into a comfortable chat about favourite tipples, which took us to the outskirts of Marmande. As we crossed a bridge spanning the River Garonne, Di had a new thought.

“I wonder if we’ll see many tomatoes?”
“Good point. Isn’t this the largest tomato producer in our part of France?”
“Yes, they’ve been grown intensively here since the nineteenth century. There are many Marmande artisanal producers, including the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Love Apple. ‘Love apple’ is what the tomato was called in the Middle Ages.”

“Perfect! There has to be a tomato fête.”

“Every year! In addition to the usual festivities, they make giant ratatouilles and enormous tomato tarts, all eaten and washed down with local wine. One day we’ll have to go.”

We reached our destination too early for Di’s rendezvous, so headed for a large café close by.

The pâtisserie was bulging with goodies. Being a fruity type of person, I couldn’t resist a tartelette aux fraises. On the other hand, Di had fancied the tartelette au citron meringues, and who could blame her?

With our tray of delectables plus aromatic coffees, we tucked into what we declared were among the best strawberry and lemon tarts we had ever eaten. Refreshed and ready to go, we were still an hour early for Di’s appointment. I pointed at a dot in the distance.

“Why don’t we have a stroll up there?”
“Great idea, it looks like the old part of town.”

Off we pottered, enjoying the sunshine and surroundings, which gradually morphed into older, grander buildings. We passed a magnificent courtyard with mighty oak doors; it seemed to be the entrance to a military establishment.  

Farther along, we discovered half-timbered houses, one in particular caught our eye with its diamond pattern frontage. Since the town was founded by Richard the Lionheart in 1182, we guessed it must have been an original medieval property.

Like many municipalities here, Marmande was at the centre of a turbulent period in history marked by religious wars and plague. Yet despite this, it has preserved remnants of a history spanning almost a millennium. However, what we saw next couldn’t have been less medieval if it tried.

A colossal clock with signs of the zodiac on the dial was positioned in the centre of a square. A large bell with Chinese characters was suspended above. There had to be a story to this!

Apparently, it was the incongruous brainchild of a town mayor, Gérard Gouzes. On his return from a trip to China in 2011, he announced that the Chinese of Yuncheng, with whom Marmande were considering a possible twinning, wished to offer a typical bell accompanied by a clock.  

Despite many disagreements on suitability and cost, the mayor, who was allegedly delighted with the furore surrounding the clock’s installation, had his way. The bell was eventually purchased from the foundry in the city of Wu Han.

Still unsure whether we should be impressed or amused, we continued. The distant dot finally took shape, and it was the Church of Notre Dame. The sun dazzled us as we admired this remarkable building.

With its Anglo-Norman style architecture, it was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. At one time, the church had a fine Gothic spire with a copper cockerel on the top. There’s a quirky tale about this too.

In 1672 the consuls in Marmande used the spire to store the town’s reserves of gun powder. Lightning struck the spire, which exploded, demolishing the steeple section and causing significant damage to the chancel – a sad end for the steeple, but another fascinating story.   

The church nave was paved with immense slabs, and wooden pews flanked either side. Tape marked points of social isolation. Even here, the perils of Covid were all too evident. The graceful vaulted ceiling, simple yet so elegant, restored serenity to this beautiful place.

We didn’t have time to look outside the cloister gardens, but we later learned that they date from 1540 and contain magnificent topiary art. One day we’ll return for a good mooch.

We returned in time for Di’s meeting. When we finished, I had a thought.

“Did you notice those savouries in the café?”
“I did. I’m starving again. Fancy a coffee and snack before we go home?”
“You’re on!”

It had been another fun excursion, another French town – partially seen, and did we see a famed Marmande tomato? Not a single one!"

Thank you Beth for this new piece, we look forward to the next story next month. Until then and if you can’t wait, you can see Beth's books and stories on her website and on Amazon here.

If you too are looking to enjoy life in glorious SW France, then let us know your criteria and your plans, it's a busy market!