The Vegetable Garden as Fine Art

CHAUMONT-SUR-LOIRE, France - Leave it to the French. Just as gardens in general and vegetable gardens in particular enjoy a passionate frenzy among the world's moneyed class, this quiet corner of the Loire puts on a show like we've never seen.

Until Oct. 24, garden lovers are invited to the Conservatoire International des Parcs et Jardins et du Paysage to view ''Rien que des Potagers'' (Nothing but Vegetable Gardens), a luxurious tour of 30 potagers designed by artists from all over the world.

If that's not enough, just a few kilometers away at the Château de la Bourdaisiere in Montlouis, Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie shares his passion for tomatoes by offering us a tour of 408 varieties of tomatoes from all over the world. Through Oct. 30, we can wander through the thriving 1-hectare organically tended potager, pondering the merits of such heirloom varieties as Yellow Round Chicken, Purple Calabash, Moon Glow and Salt Spring Sunrise, not to mention plots devoted to 120 varieties of lettuce, 28 varieties of melon, dozens of varieties of basil, mint, thyme, raspberries and strawberries. And if we're lucky, the outgoing gardener Marc Brizion may just be there to offer some advice (start your seeds on Feb. 15; bury the plants with lots of nettles on May 15 after les Saints de Glace; feed your tomatoes every two weeks with a good organic fertilizer) and perhaps a taste or two.

De Broglie also offers an attractive display of almost all the varieties of tomatoes in a separate outbuilding, along with a garden shop for seeds, books and garden gear. Visitors can also stay at the château, which serves as a sort of bed and breakfast, where the breakfast includes, of course, tomato jam. On Sept. 18 and 19 there will be a Festival de la Tomate, where guests can sample the season's bounty.

The Chaumont conservatoire is in its eighth year, with each June-to-October garden season devoted to a different theme. This year's potager competition brought in 300 contestants, from sculptors to landscape architects, from France, Belgium, the United States, Scotland, Japan, Algeria, Morocco and Bangladesh and is now receiving some 3,000 visitors each day.

Don't go expecting to see a model potager - that's my one regret - but rather artful fantasy gardens. Some are filled with practical ideas, but most are zany or wild, though in the end emotionally uplifting and inspiring.

a square deal My favorite garden is the most practical, L'Art du Potager en Carres, nine 30-centimeter by 30-centimeter metal squares set at waist level, filled with dirt, equipped with shade screens and trellises, a watering system, glass for a greenhouse effect and a frame for starting seedlings. Jean-Paul Collaert and Jean-Michelle Wilmotte of France are geniuses. They figure that a family of four could eat out of the garden throughout the season with just four of the clever squares.

The most thoughtful and original is the Potager Nomade, the creation of three French artists - Patrick Nandea, Nathalie Ciprian and Vincent Rougier - who designed a four-sided metal box, much like a square camping trailer. The idea is that one can take this garden anywhere. The box opens to create four platforms: one that serves as a greenhouse for tomatoes, another for neat rows of trellised eggplant and peppers, one for tidy rows of salad greens and a fourth for sitting on a lounge chair, contemplating nature.

The Chinese Garden is the most calming and contemplative, the creation of a trio of Chinese artists who offer us a contemplative yin-yang planting complete with fountain and stone walkways.

Many, like Jean-Luc Danneyrolles's Potager Bio d'un Curieux (The Inquisitive Man's Organic Vegetable Garden), are full of a sort of preachy intellectualism and symbolism for which the French are famous. They can't just let a garden be a garden. His visually fanciful garden, brightened by colorful labels in bold primary colors, represents the four elements.

Visitors can tour the gardens on their own, or take part in the hourly guided visits. There's also a lovely garden shop where you can buy everything from old-fashioned French-made fly swatters to gardening books and organic herbal teas. For dining, there is an outdoor tea salon, an all-you-can-eat pasta restaurant and a fine restaurant under a gorgeous canopy called Le Grand Velum. Under the careful eye of the inventive chef Francois-Xavier Bogard, diners are surprised, challenged, rewarded, with a reasonably priced 110-franc or 145-franc ($18 to $23) menu that includes a remarkable selection of local wines by the glass.

Bogard cooks with only organic produce supplied by the conservatoire's gardens and that of local growers, and has fashioned a bright, garden-inspired menu that makes use of newly popular herbs and spices. Purple basil, star anise, Sichuan pepper, nasturtium leaves, heirloom yellow zucchini, green cardamom and lemon verbena are just a few of the items that grace the menu.

culinary surprises Most dishes are designed to surprise, arriving in the form of one of the currently trendy architectural creations. I'm opposed to the trend when flavor takes a back seat to form, but in Bogard's case, the creations serve both purposes well.

Try the creamy tomato soup prepared with the popular beefsteak tomato, served with a delicious tomato basil sorbet, a confit of yellow tomatoes and a purple basil emulsion. Or, opt for the tempura-like garden of baby vegetables, artfully arranged in a package of Moroccan feuille de brik shaped liked an ordinary brown paper bag. As a main course, the moist and delicious oxtail is a must, carefully seasoned with pepper spices, pure Caribbean chocolate and green cardamom. And who would have thought to cook the accompanying Charlotte potatoes in a bath of carrot juice, heightened with a horseradish tang?

Desserts are designed to assuage the sweet tooth as well as chocolate fanatics, with a Valrhona chocolate duet, as well as a classic fruit salad composed of melon, red plums, yellow peaches and red currants, served in a rosette of melon with cherry sorbet and chocolate madeleines. Cheese lovers should not miss the local Sainte-Maure de Touraine, a firm, clean-flavored goat's-milk cheese with a classic, lactic tang.

To sip along with the meal, there is a mineral-rich, pale golden, grapefruity Cuvee de Fie Gris, a 1996 Touraine wine from old vines made by Jacky Preys; and a deliciously fruity and lively rose from the house of Rousseau Freres. Most wines can be had by the glass, all priced at around 80 francs a bottle.

On a down note, the bread is flavorless and service is extremely slow and unprofessional, with staffers who act as if they - not you - are on vacation.

Both gardens have special events planned for the French Semaine du Gout, from Oct. 16 to 24.

Rien Que des Potagers

Conservatoire International des Parcs et Jardins et du Paysage
41150 Chaumont-sur-Loire
(17 kilometers from Blois)
Tel: 02-54-20-99-22
Fax: 02-54-20-99-24.

Open daily, 9 A.M. to nightfall. Entry fee: 48 francs for adults; 20 francs for children 8 to 12, free to children under 8.

Le Potager d'un Prince

Château de la Bourdaisiere
37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire
(241 kilometers from Paris, 12 kilometers from Tours)
Tel: 02-47-45-16-31
Fax: 02-47-45-09-11

Open daily 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. Entry to garden, 25 francs for adults, free to children under 8.