Meet the Man Who Wants to Save the World with Tomatoes

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Meet the Man Who Wants to Save the World with Tomatoes

You won’t frequently find Michel Danneau sitting down, but that’s what he’s doing the first time I see him. As I walk towards him, I take in the expanse of his verdant Garden of Eden behind him, marveling at the cornucopia of strange, heirloom vegetables — bulbous tomatoes, spiny-looking squash, eggplant whiter than the moon.

When I approach, Danneau is sitting at a card table in the shade, sorting small brown seeds onto pieces of cotton.

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Within the first few moments of meeting Michel, however, it’s as though I’ve known him for years. He’s an open book, often speaking in aphorisms of his own invention.

“I want to die young, but as late as possible,” the man who claims he has been 39 for “a while” says with a grin, and it seems that he’s going to achieve this goal.

Michel lives in the small town of Coullons, in the Center region of France, not far from the chateaux of the Loire Valley. When he finally bought this house at the age of 50, after years of working in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided he was going to make it into a place that encouraged life… and he was going to attempt a feat he knew possible: change the world by growing 1,008 varieties of tomatoes.

Michel spends most of his time in his own little piece of paradise, tending his tomatoes and other vegetables, and doing things his own way. Growing 1,008 varieties of tomatoes wasn’t as intimidating to him as it sounds, because he always did things a little differently. “I never do anything like other people,” he says. He offers many examples of this — leaving school at 14, backpacking around the world far before it was “cool” — but the biggest highlight of his independent worldview is his interest in biodiversity, a passion that drives his tomato-growing project.

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His garden bears witness to this obsession, a place of his own invention dedicated to life — which is “bio” in Greek, he points out. And bio is the word that has been used to represent organic agriculture in France since the 1920s.

“The idea was to create a space where life thrives,” he says. “I have peacocks, I have donkeys, I have tortoises down there. I mean, there’s a place for everything. That’s why I don’t have a dog. If I had a dog, I wouldn’t have anything.”

The garden itself is planted in the form of a daisy. “It’s the only thing I know how to draw,” he says. The center is made of amaranth flowers – “the first grains eaten by the Inca,” he informs me — and stretching out on all sides are rows and rows of fruits and vegetables.

In Michel’s garden, no pesticides or chemical products are welcome. When some unsuspecting salespeople came to try to sell him herbicide, he said he’d be happy to use it … if the salesperson could drink a spoonful of it in front of him first.

Instead, he encourages natural ways of keeping his plants safe from insects and pests. “Of course, it depends on the pests,” he says. “Some I like, and some I like a bit less.”

He gives the example of the blackbird, who would be tempted to eat all of his produce, if he didn’t also grow elderberries. “I grow elderberries and things like that, and they eat the elderberries instead of eating the vegetables,” he says.

“There’s a balance,” he says. “They don’t need anything.”

Of course, he gets a bit of help from his “agricultural auxiliaries,” two donkeys whose natural waste is a key ingredient in keeping the garden prolific. “I give them things to eat, and everything they give me back is marvelous for cultivation,” he says. “So when I plant something, it’s with the droppings that I get from my donkeys, and I make compost, and with my compost, I take care of my earth. As it should be everywhere, as it should be done naturally.”

But perhaps the most important element of his culture has nothing to do with what doesn’t go into it, but the richness that does – namely, the diversity of his garden.

“Monsanto wants the world to die of hunger, so that they can sell seeds to them,” he says. “That’s what they do in India, anyway. Monsanto is the antithesis of the development of liberty, of life.”IMG_2537.JPG

Unsurprisingly, Michel is in direct opposition to the genetically modified organisms of such companies, instead encouraging biodiversity in his garden. As we wander through, he identifies several of the 1,008 varieties, knowing each intimately: its name, its flavor, its origins. Every one is non-hybrid, a unique variety kept separate from all the rest thanks to Michel’s fastidious nature and practice from years in the pharmaceutical industry. “If you mix two seeds, you lose the variety, so you have to be very, very careful,” he says.

His efforts have been fruitful. He introduces me to tomatoes I’ve never seen before – blue tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, green tomatoes, black tomatoes, tomatoes whose skin is wrinkled like an accordion, others as large as 2 2/3 pounds. These varieties aren’t like the “heirlooms” you find in the supermarket either.

“You know, beefsteak tomatoes, if I were to count, I must have over 100 varieties,” he says. “Beefsteak is just a kind.”

True varieties, on the other hand, live up to their name. He shows us one with a strangely fuzzy skin, appropriately called a Garden Peach. Another tomato, fully ripe though pure white, called the Ghost of Laos. “Strange, isn’t it?” he asks, gleeful as he shares his secrets, his favorites.

“This one’s pure poetry. The name of the tomato is Rising Sun White. Poetry!” he says. “And it’s very good. You can taste it… you only pay as you leave,” he jokes. In reality, Michel refuses to sell his tomatoes, preferring to give them away.

His travels have inspired him as well, he says, as he shows us a plant he brought back from the States, a favorite of a chef who had spent two years in Mexico. “He brought this back because he said, ‘That’s the best tomato I’ve ever eaten,’” Michel recounts. “It’s a tomato that was found in the Mexican forest and was a wild tomato, so some villagers harvested and cultivated it and so on.” The chef gave Michel six seeds, which he taped up and hid in his jacket lining in order to bring them back to France and add them to his collection.

“I’ve only got one plant per variety, but that’s true for everything I’ve planted,” he says, citing his 30 eggplant varieties, 95 squashes, 26 zucchini and summer squash, 16 beets and 62 beans. Each new variety is a challenge, something for Michel to explore, to get to know, to learn to exemplify.

“This is an African eggplant called African Red,” he says, showing us an eggplant that, admittedly, looks more like a tomato. “If you eat it the way we eat eggplants, it’s inedible. Inedible! And when I say inedible, I mean inedible,” he says. “But, that being said, when it’s mixed into a dish with a few other ingredients, the way they do in African cuisine…” he trails off as though remembering the dish, a smile on his face.

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But soon the reverie is broken; he sets off in search of one of his squashes. “Gotta find it,” he mutters to himself, poking through his rows and rows of plants like someone looking for a lost sock or a misplaced pair of glasses. “Where did I put it last time…”

When he finally locates it, he shows me the variety, one that he says – and I agree – looks more like plastic than like squash. “It’s edible, but only the seeds,” he says. He places it delicately back on the ground.

It’s clear that he loves what he does, and he has a true passion for conservation, his first goal in founding the garden. Today, however, he’s much more firmly geared towards sharing his knowledge and passion, particularly with those who would attempt the same in their own home. He highlights this as he shows me the permaculture area of his garden, where he claims to do “nothing at all.” In earth that’s two-thirds compost and one-third soil, he plants seeds, covers the entire thing with a tarp, and waits.

“That’s permaculture, that’s permanent agriculture,” he says. “I don’t till, I don’t do anything. It’s kind of a lazy person’s career, isn’t it?”

Easy to say for a man who, when he sleeps in, rises at 5:30, but it is true that Michel’s goal is to make his own work easier, and this, in large part, to encourage others to do the same. He has invented a slogan for his method of cultivation: “I plant my tomatoes when I harvest them,” he says. While I meditate on what the slogan could possibly mean, he shows me.His garden is separated into two portions – the JAP or jardin à partager (sharing garden), where he says the most flavorful elements grow, and the JAR or jardin à récolter (harvesting garden), which he uses to plant the garden for the following year. The tomatoes from the JAR are harvested and immediately cut in half, at which point they’re placed on soil and left over the course of the winter in a warm, dry place.

“In the spring, on March 15th, I get out my container of soil, I water it, I put it in the greenhouse, and there you’ll see – exactly the same number of tomato plants as there were seeds in the tomatoes.”

This method not only allows him ease of planting, it also allows him to share even more of what he grows. “This year, I must have given maybe 4 or 5 thousand tomato plants,” he says. And that’s just the beginning.

“I must have sent maybe 20,000 seeds – in packs of 100 – which were distributed in Senegal to schools.” Working with an association, he sends out these seed packets, which are given to the students to be planted at home, giving them not only a place to learn to harvest their own food but the ability to feed their families.

“And with that method I told you about for harvesting the seeds, they can make a garden that really counts … when you’re dying of hunger, that’s what really counts. So I was able to do that.”

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Even in describing this, however, he remains humble. “I don’t want to teach anyone a lesson,” he says. “I just do what I do. If I can do it, anyone can.”

“Sometimes I eat industrial. I mean, I’m not ashamed to go eat in a McDonald’s,” he says. That being said, his goal, and above all, his desire, is to eat natural things and share this love of natural food with others; to show them, by his example, just what is possible with a bit of time and patience. “I’m not saying you could feed the whole world … but …”

Maybe that’s exactly what he’s saying.

He fills an enormous container with tomatoes for me to take back to Paris — including his favorite, Venus’ Nipple, swatting away my protests. “I have to get rid of them somehow!” he says. As he’s hand-selecting his favorite varieties, he explains his vision for the future. Instead of villes fleuries — the towns and villages throughout France that participate in a yearly competition to improve their green spaces with flowers, in existence since 1959 — he suggests villes tomates, tomato cities.

“In two years, everything will be covered, either in tomatoes or in eggplants or in whatever,” he says. “And if people were a little bit respectful of things, you’d be able to just stop, take 5 or 6 tomatoes, and go home. And there you go.”

“It would be just as pretty, and on top of that, it’s useful, and on top of that, it’s a treat! And it would be a discovery, for children, and for older people they might remember what gardens were like before.”

His eyes light up at the prospect, and then, with an impish smile, he hands over the crate, positively laden with different tomatoes, different colors, different flavors.

“I don’t know if it’s romantic or if it’s provocative,” he says with a grin. “Let’s say it’s provocative.”

As he passes off the tomatoes, I taste one. “They taste … real,” is the best I can muster.

“Yeah, that’s right, isn’t it? That’s the right word.”

Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.