From the depths, mushroom growers in Paris seek to resurface

Two centuries ago, French farmers revolutionized modern mushroom farming by settling in the labyrinth of underground limestone quarries in Paris. But his technique is in danger now, due to the lack of interested parties.

And this despite demand being more important than ever for these traditionally grown white mushrooms, as well as their brown cousins, reputed to be tastier.

“The issue is not finding customers. I sell everything I produce,” explains Shoua-moua Vang, head of the Les Alouettes mushroom in Carrières-sur-Seine, west of the capital, not far from the financial heart of Paris, La Défense. .

Vang runs one of the largest mushroom-growing cellars in the Paris region, running through a hectare and a half of tunnels deep in the bowels of a hill overlooking the Seine.

Its clients include Michelin-starred chefs, as well as supermarket chains and local markets, despite considering that their products are “expensive”: 3.20 euros / kilo (3.60 dollars / kilo).

But during a recent AFP visit, damp boxes filled with hundreds of kilos of these mushrooms were waiting to be thrown away. The reason? Hands are lacking to harvest them all.

Only five of its 11 employees were at work. The rest were on sick leave and the boss doubts they will all return.

“Today, people do not want to work all day in the dark, like vampires,” laments the businessman. Its daily production reaches 1.5 tons, instead of the usual 2.5 or even 3 tons.

Shoua-moua Vang is one of the five producers who still traditionally cultivate the “mushrooms of Paris”. At the end of the 19th century, there were 250.

So, they discovered that the Agaricus bisporus, a mushroom popularized by Louis XIV, the Sun King, could be grown year-round in a manure substrate in the depths, where temperature and humidity can be controlled. The darkness favors their growth.

The earthy and stony environment also gives the mushrooms a hazelnut, almost mineral flavor, while preventing them from becoming saturated with water.

Even the macabre catacombs of Paris, one of the capital’s most visited tourist attractions, came to be covered with these fungi.

“They grow naturally”

Urbanization and the construction of the Parisian metro especially forced farmers to move outside the capital in the early 1900s. In 1970, fifty were still active in the suburbs.

But the arrival of cheaper imports from the Netherlands, Poland and, later, China, where it is produced in warehouses and where peat increases yield, was the final blow.

“Many no longer had anyone [para seguir con el negocio] after his retirement “, explains Muriel Le Loarer, who fights for the survival of this tradition through Safer, a rural development agency.

Shoua-moua Vang took over, for example, in September 2020 a quarry in which he worked for 11 years, since the children of the previous owner did not want to follow in his footsteps.

“We promote the sector, we help find financial aid and we work with local authorities to reopen the quarries,” says Le Loarer, highlighting the growing interest in short circuits.

At the moment, mushrooms from Paris represent only a tiny part of the 90,000 tonnes produced in France each year, according to figures from the Rungis wholesale market, south of the capital.

And it is too late to create an appellation “Paris Mushroom”, in order to protect this production, since this term has been used in a generalized way for decades, according to the authorities.

Parisian producers thus face a challenge: they must make an effort so that customers understand the interest of their work.

“Our mushrooms grow naturally. I don’t stimulate them by spraying them with water, because this would saturate them with water,” sums up Vang. “The mushrooms in giant ships are grown by computer.”