Ever tried a ‘champignon de Paris‘? The real one– cultivated in abundance and almost exclusively once upon a time in the catacombs of Paris?
Having lost its roots, more commonly known to the rest of the world today as a ‘button mushroom’, which we all enjoy on occasion with our meals, perhaps stirred into a risotto; the real champignon de Paris has become a bit of a gastronomic legend. Even if the box has ‘Champignon de Paris’ written on the supermarket label, chances are, they weren’t ‘made in Paris’. Not even close.
Little known even to Parisians however, thanks to a few lone farmers of the underground, the true ‘champignon de Paris‘ still exists in the vast network of tunnels under their feet. You can even take home your very own stash of the rare city crop straight from the farmer’s hand if you go looking for the old suburban mining entrances where limestone was once extracted from the centre of Paris.
A mushroom farm at Seine-Saint-Denis, (c) E. Gaffard/ Ed. Parigramme
As the story goes, it all began with a Parisian farmer named Monsieur Chambery, who by chance, went exploring in the abandoned quarries where he stumbled upon a swarm of mushrooms growing on a pile of horse manure…
By the 19th century, an intensive era of mining in Paris had come to an end. The rich limestone deposits in the Left Bank were running low (after successfully providing enough stone to build half the city), and the sudden commercialisation of concrete saw the quarries abandoned almost overnight. Workers who had been mining there for generations emerged from the tunnels and just like that, an industry disappeared.
But when one curious Monsieur Chambery discovered that there was still a way to exploit the underground cavities, he ditched his vegetable gardens and invested wholly in the cultivation of underground mushrooms, ‘made in Paris’.
Soon enough, the growing subculture was officially recognised and approved by the newly formed Horticultural Society of Paris, whose founding President just so happened to be the former, Inspecteur Générale des Carrières, or ‘mining inspector’ for the city. Former miners and their sons descended into to the quarries once again via ladder or ventilation shafts to farm the new crop which quickly transitioned from a chance discovery to a thriving industry.
The constant temperature, humidity and darkness of the quarries were ideal for the mushroom, which Chambery continued to cultivate just as he had discovered them … in horse manure. The champignon de Paris was in high demand and just as quickly as the quarries had been abandoned overnight in the early 19th century, they were exploited again by entrepreneurs hoping to imitate Chambery’s natural recipe and make their fortune.
By the 1940s, subterranean Paris was producing more than 2,000 tons of mushroom a year and in 1950, there were approximately a hundred Parisian mushroom farmers operating inside the catacombs.
Old signs for the mushroom caves under Paris (c) rue des Lumieres
But for the ‘made in Paris’ mushroom, such favourable conditions were short-lived. With the construction of the Paris métro, the growth of mushrooms began to decline in the mid 20th century. By 1970, the number of farms halved.
A few had expanded further through the underground networks, closer to the suburban entrances of the old limestone mines. This enabled the mushroom cultures to move by season; in the summer, they could grow closer to the entrances and the warm air and deeper in the tunnels during the winter. But still, this could not save the once flourishing Parisian industry.
Mushroom sacks, almost perfectly preserved (c) Urban-Exploration.com
Abandoned cultivation of Shitake.
No match for national competition, including producers of the Loire Valley, but especially that of other European countries with cheaper labour costs, such as Poland, the Netherlands or China, omnipresent in the field of canned and frozen mushrooms; all but six Paris mushroom farmers abandoned their cultures.
With only a few tons actually coming out of Paris every year, the true champignon de Paris all but disappeared from the food industry and became not much more than a gastronomic myth.
But then again, who doesn’t love a good comeback?
Champignonnière “Les Carrieres”.
Just a few kilometres from Paris’ financial district of La Defense, in Montesson, this quarry inherited from one of the original champignonnières of Paris, is still cultivating the real deal. The grandson of a champignonnière de Paris, Angel Moioli grows his mushrooms like no other producers in the world can– the Parisian way. He produces around 300kg per week and sells to locals who come to buy from him regularly, as well as restaurants and chefs who come specially.
Clos du Roi, another mushroom farm in an old quarry, northwest of Paris.
Traditional, organic and local are three magic words currently buzzing in the foodie world and could be the key to a comeback for the legend of the mushroom grown in the quarries under Paris that once helped build the Panthéon, the Gare de l’Est and Place de la Concorde.
So, who’s up for some baguette with garlic buttery mushrooms and sage? made in Paris, but of course!
Addresses for Champignon de Paris:
Angel Moioli’s Champignonnière “Les Carrieres” (opening hours): Angle de l’avenue du Général de Gaulle et de la rue Jean Macé, 78360 Montesson, (Tel: 06.09.06.21.52)
Clos du Roi (wholesale): 11 rue Pagnère, 95310 Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône (Tel: 01 34 64 11 74).
Image sources: Rue des Lumières / Urban-Exploration.com