Strawberry crops from Carpentras in France bring juicy joy

The term “strawberry from Carpentras” is very old, “dating back to the 1900s, when strawberries from the villages of Monteux, Loriol, Sarrians or Pernes were transported by train from Carpentras to Paris”, says Philippe Bon, a fifth-generation strawberry grower. in Monteux, in the department of Vaucluse.

“It was also at this time, he adds, that my great-grandfather, who had come down from the mountains, started growing strawberries because he could now irrigate the plantations thanks to the Carpentras canal, built under Napoleon III. Without this channel, there would never have been all these strawberries here.

More than a century later, the Carpentras strawberry, with its bright red color, remains one of the main symbols of spring in Provence and throughout France.

Strawberry Brotherhood

The first strawberry of the season, it can be found in markets from March to July, presented in baskets or containers ready to be transported. It is naturally very sweet, juicy and delicious eaten plain, while some prefer it topped with sugar or whipped cream or coated in chocolate.

It is also used in the manufacture of syrups and the famous Carpentras cartonsa pyramid-shaped hard candy.

This strawberry, which flourishes in an exceptional terroir and climate, is also found at the Elysée Palace, at the table of the President of the Republic. And every year in April, a strawberry festival takes place in Carpentras where the priest gives the blessing to the new harvest.

Since the pioneering years of Philippe Bon’s great-grandfather (winner of the prestigious ‘Mérite Agricole’ medal for his contribution to strawberry cultivation), the Carpentras strawberry has also been a registered trademark, the ‘Fraise of Carpentras Comtat Venaissin’, filed in 2015 by the Strawberry Brotherhood of Carpentras and Comtat Venaissin (Strawberry Brotherhood of Carpentras and Comtat Venaissin) to commercially protect its 120 producers.

Members of the Strawberry Brotherhood of Carpentras. Photo: Carpentras Strawberry Brotherhood/Carpentras Town Hall/Patrice Bertand

There ‘strawberry from Carpentras‘, as it is simply called, must therefore be produced exclusively in the department of Vaucluse, essentially in the fertile plains of Comtat Venaissin, the former Papal State between Rhône, Durance and Mont Ventoux, of which Carpentras was the capital.

Compliant with very precise specifications, it is available in several varieties chosen for their taste, their resistance and their staying power in the season: Cléry, Gariguette, Ciflorette and Mara des Bois. But for the most part, the Carpentras strawberry is virtually synonymous with the Cléry variety, accounting for more than 80% of production.

“The Cléry is a round strawberry, melting in the mouth and quite sweet, with a slight lemony aftertaste”, explains Philippe Bon, who owns four hectares of greenhouses where he only grows Cléry.

These greenhouses are still irrigated by water from the Carpentras canal in hot weather, as in the time of his ancestors. “As I’m on fairly cold ground, if I had other varieties, I would risk having problems with flower frost. The other advantage of Cléry is that it is less sensitive to powdery mildew than the others, and therefore requires fewer treatments.

“The smallest but the most renowned”

The Carpentras strawberry was planted for the first time in 1882 and comes from some 600 varieties developed since the introduction of the strawberry in France, around 1600. We owe it, in particular, to François Frézier (fortuitously pronounced as ‘strawberries tree‘, French for strawberry) which brought Fragaria chiloensis Chilean plants.

Today, France produces around 50,000 tonnes per year, an insufficient quantity for French households who consume around 2.6 kg per year, i.e. a total consumption of around 110,000 tonnes.

“We are the smallest production region in France, but we are also the most famous”, proudly announces Philippe Bon who, like other producers, must find the means to satisfy the insatiable appetite of his compatriots. But growing strawberries on a large scale is a difficult art: it requires careful craftsmanship and is expensive because it is labor intensive.

Indeed, strawberries must be replanted annually, most of the time above ground (method of growing plants in any support other than the ground), well sheltered in plastic tunnels which form a barrier against pests, protect them from climatic hazards, and intensify their effect. of the sun. These shelters also allow the producer to modulate the temperature, by heating them or by creating openings allowing the air to circulate.

“Strawberries need cold, a little heat but not too much, and water”, specifies Philippe Bon. “Before, our grandparents planted every two years. They put them in the ground in August and waited until the spring of the following year to pick them. But, in the second year, the plants wilted and the berries were much smaller and less attractive.

The Carpentras strawberry must be produced exclusively in the Vaucluse department and must comply with very precise specifications. Photo: Carpentras Strawberry Brotherhood/Carpentras Town Hall/Patrice Bertand

“Today, we replant every year. The plant is raised in a nursery and then stored in the refrigerator. Then we plant in December and harvest them in March. Picking is done by hand with six people per hectare, for a total of 24, mainly seasonal workers.

In this way, Philippe Bon harvests between 120 and 150 tonnes per year, which makes him a fairly big producer – but not the biggest.

Recognition of quality is at the heart of concerns

For these producers, the operating conditions, linked to the vagaries of the weather and international competition, are not always easy. “All the production inputs that we use, like fuel, gas, plastic or fertilizers, are constantly increasing and this is a real problem for us.

“As this winter has been very cold compared to previous years, this has only made the situation worse. Because of the costs, I had to heat less and my harvest was two weeks late,” says Philippe Bon.

“Then there is competition from Spanish strawberries. In February, they were already in stores at only €4 per kilo. To sell our strawberries, we have to adjust a little to this price, even if it is a completely different product from ours.

“As it costs less in terms of labor and inputs, it is only on the cost of shipping that we can be competitive. And, of course, on the quality.

This emphasis on the recognition of quality is obviously at the heart of the concerns of brand managers. “The next step is to make the Carpentras strawberry an AOP [protected designation of origin]explains Dominique Begnis, the dynamic president of the Carpentras Strawberry Brotherhood.

“We are currently working on it but are encountering some difficulties: to obtain an AOP or an IGP, above-ground strawberries are not taken into account, and almost 80% of the strawberry crop in Vaucluse is grown this way. But I hope we can succeed.

It also remains to be seen whether the Carpentras strawberry will continue to be identified with Cléry.

The answer is probably no. “A strawberry plant, after a few years, loses its specificities”, specifies Dominique Begnis. “Before the Cléry, we used the Pajaro which was also a round cutter but it had to be replaced.

Today, Cléry is a little over twenty years old and it is estimated that it still has a few years left. We are currently consulting nurseries to see if they have varieties that can replace Cléry – because in the long term, it will have to be done.

To find out more, visit the Strawberry Brotherhood website.

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