Pierre Mortreux is young, hopeful and very busy. He is part of a new wave of thirty-somethings who are convinced by the view that work is not just a necessary adjunct to the fun stuff but a natural and essential part of a life well lived – and are determined to follow that path. For Pierre, this means working outside; getting his hands dirty in the soil and having a daily connection with nature and the land. I went to meet him in his two-and-a-half acre market garden at the foot of the magnificent, medieval walled town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, in the French Pas-de-Calais region.
The young man striding over to greet me looked like someone I had come across before, perhaps in a Renoir painting (By the Water, 1880). Tall, strawberry blonde and bearded, with a straw hat and serious-looking black-rimmed round glasses, that suggest both bygone times and current cool, he projected a romantic image. But, as we got talking, it became clear that he has his feet firmly on the ground. I thanked him for giving me his time and he graciously replied that it was a pleasure to share his passion – and it is obvious from the scale of the project before me that you would have to be passionate to work this hard. You could say that Pierre is part of a burgeoning movement which Paris Match has called, Les Nouveaux Paysans. These are young city dwellers who are choosing to leave well paid jobs to go back to the land – but on their terms. Unlike the self-sufficiency movement of the 70s, they are pretty switched on about the financial and social implications of this way of life. While they have high ideals, they understand there is little romance in poverty and use spread sheets and marketing strategies to plan and optimise their efforts. This market gardener knows where he would like to be in five years’ time.
Pierre tells me that he comes from an entrepreneurial family in the hospitality business but that his father always took him out into the countryside. ‘He is a chasseur ‘, a hunter, ‘I know that makes him a brute in some people’s eyes but, in fact, he is very sensitive to the environment and loves the natural world.’ Pierre knew his happiness depended on spending his time outside and initially chose to work in the oyster farming industry. However, growing food interested him as a fundamental of life, a service to his community. When he decided that he wanted to have a go at organic market gardening he understood that some training would stand him in good stead. He studied Maraîchage Biologique on one of the many practical training schemes provided by the French government, which gave him an excellent grounding – but Pierre also found himself a guru.
His business plan (no hippy-dippy approach here) is based on the best-selling book by Canadian, Jean-Martin Fortier; The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small Scale Organic Farming. Fortier has been called the most influential man in the farming world of the last ten years. He has demonstrated that a well-organised and organic plot of just one and a half acres can produce a very decent income – maximising productivity and quality of life. Pierre is hoping to do the same. I asked him why he calls his business Les Mains Noires, black hands, – ‘because my hands are always stained with earth’ – and that’s the way he likes them. As per Fortier’s template, his plot is divided into open-air growing and polytunnel production. Outdoor crops are organised into six ‘jardins‘ divided into planches, or strips, measuring 25 m x 75cms, the right size for a man to work comfortably by hand. The earth is turned once a year with a petrol-driven rotavator, (he tells me he uses no more than thirty litres of fuel annually) but, otherwise, just the top couple of centimetres or so are gently harrowed in order to maintain a soil full of life and with good structure. Pierre has invested in a battery of ingenious hand tools designed to make tasks like hoeing and planting a little easier. I quite fancied some of them for my own garden.
His two polytunnels extend his season for best-sellers, such as his range of tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. They also allow him to produce some crowd pleasers – exotic curiosities which draw shoppers around his stall at the weekly Saturday market in Montreuil, as well as the Michelin starred restaurants he supplies. It is hot and steamy in the tunnels in August, and pushing through a veil of unfamiliar vegetables felt a bit like a tropical adventure. Pierre showed me his Cyclanthera pedata, also known as stuffing cucumber, burmese winged beans, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, a bit like a mangetout, sweet banana melons, Cucumis melo, and spikey little Asian cucumbers, Cucumis Anguria – all of which were absolutely delicious. I asked if the marigolds were there for pest control and he smiled and said candidly, ‘not really, mainly because they are pretty.’
The work is hard and, in the growing season, relentless. This is just his second year so he has little money to spare and paid help is limited to a few hours a week; plus a bit of loving support from his girlfriend, Bérénice, whenever she is free to visit. He starts work at 7am and finishes late but planting, weeding and harvesting is just part of the job – he has to be an administrator and salesman too. And then there is the emotional side to working with nature. What does he do when a crop becomes overwhelmed by a disease, like the mildew I see which has taken hold of his pumpkins? Pierre shrugs his shoulders, ‘I don’t use any chemical solutions to problems, so I have to be both philosophical and pragmatic – I factor in a certain amount of loss in my plans, nourish the soil as best I can and hope for a better result next season. I also supplement my produce with stock I buy-in from other organic suppliers, especially in the winter months.’ He admits that it is not a life without stress but, he says with a warm smile, ‘I love it – I absolutely love it when someone says they have enjoyed something I have grown, it makes everything worthwhile.’
You can meet Pierre on his stall at the weekly market every Saturday morning in Montreuil-sur-Mer (a beautiful historic town which ceased being by the sea centuries ago and an excellent weekend destination just under an hour’s drive from the Eurotunnel at Calais).
Pierre Mortreux – Maraîcheur bio
Les Mains Noires
19, rue de la Chartreuse
For the full article on the nouveaux paysans see
For more on Jean Martin Fortier visit his website http://www.themarketgardener.com/book/
This article from The Telegraph describes the charm of Montreuil pretty well:
Image of Jean-Martin Fortier courtesy of – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21857348