Mushrooms, manure, and the secret of French food

Recently, at The Astrolabe Gallery, a print and map store on Sparks Street in Ottawa, I chanced upon a page from the London Illustrated News, Dec. 4, 1869. Two woodcuts depicted “Mushroom Culture in France.”

Montrouge0002

The “entrance to a mushroom cave at Montrouge, near Paris” intrigued me. The central figure is a young man handing over a basket that he appears to have brought up from below ground. Three women take the baskets away. A man sits astride a pony harnessed by a whiffle tree to a cable that runs over a pulley to below ground. Another man is emptying a larger wicker basket and the contents run down a rough chute. A fourth man leans on a shovel. In the background there are three heavier lifting wheels and in the distance a large fortified building (Philippa wonders if it might be the Montrouge fort, one of 16 built around Paris in the 1840s).

Montrouge0001

The next cut portrays the “interior of the mushroom cave.” It is lit by candles and was probably much darker than the artist portrays. On the far right, a man appears to be picking mushrooms and another is loading them into baskets, which he will then pick up using a shoulder harness similar to that used by the man climbing the pole to take the mushrooms above ground. A man leans against a shovel next to a large wicker basket on the ground and another similar basket is either ascending or descending. The man with the wheelbarrow looks to have been working hard and on the left are more mushroom beds. The walls appear to have been hewn out of stone.

For the rest of the story, I needed to “see page 567” from the Illustrated London News. Thank goodness for online historic newspapers available through the library. The short text described the way in which mushrooms were cultivated on horse manure in caves and the abandoned mines or quarries that underlie much of the Paris region. The text noted, “Some account of this curious subject will be found in Mr. Robinson’s book, ‘The Parks, Promenades, and Gardens of Paris,’ just published by Mr. Murray, which is a volume full of pleasant and instructive matter.”

Nothing I enjoy more than pleasant and instructive matter. Mr. Robinson turned out to be William Robinson, an Irish gardener and journalist who promoted “wild gardens” of perennials, rather than the formal gardens of annual bedding plants that were common in his day. (He would probably approve of our chaotic Toronto garden of perennials, herbs, and vines, shaded by a maple tree.)

WilliamRobinson

The full title of his book was The Parks, Promenades & Gardens of Paris Described and considered in Relation to the Wants of our Cities and of Public and Private Gardens (Victorians didn’t believe in short, snappy titles). He wrote it when he was the Times correspondent for the Horticultural Department of the Great Paris Exhibition. The book describes French horticulture, market gardening, and food and compares them with their English equivalents. The English versions are usually found wanting.

Robinson was impressed by the great care French growers took with their crops. He contrasted it with less careful and less productive practices in England. In writing about lettuce, for example, he exclaimed, “The culture of salads for the Paris market is not merely good—it is perfection.”

He devotes an entire chapter to Mushroom Culture, and begins by stating enthusiastically, “Mushroom growing as carried on around, or rather beneath Paris and its environs, is the most extraordinary example of culture that I have ever seen either above or below ground, under glass or in the open air.”

Like any good journalist, Robinson had connections, so he was able to find a normally wary champignonniste (mushroom grower) to escort him into “one of the great ‘Mushroom caves’ at Montrouge, just outside the fortifications of Paris, on the southern side” on July 6, 1868.

MushroomCaves

Robinson took pains to help his British readers gain a clear picture. “The surface of the ground is mostly cropped with Wheat; but here and there lie, ready to be transported to Paris, blocks of white stone, which have recently been brought to the surface of the ground through coalpit-like openings. There is nothing like a ‘quarry,’ as we understand it, to be seen about; but the stone is extracted as we extract coal, and with no interference with the surface of the ground.”

This underground quarrying had led to the hundreds of kilometres of galleries, caverns, tunnels, and open spaces that still lie beneath many parts of Paris. Occasional subsidence had led to collapses, such as that of a row of houses on the rue d’Enfer (now the rue Denfert-Rochereau) in 1774. Napoleon later prohibited all further quarrying and mining under the city. However, Montrouge was outside the walls. There, conventional farming continued above, while below, limestone or gypsum were quarried and mushroom farming took place in underground caverns.

The depth of these mushroom farms ranged from 20 to 160 feet below ground. Robinson described the entrance as “a circular opening like the mouth of an old well, but from it protrudes the head of a thick pole with sticks thrust through it.” After descending this precarious contraption, the champignonniste entered a network in which one cave and its many passageways held six or seven miles of mushroom beds.

This was an area of year-round production at a constant temperature, so as one wandered about one saw beds in varying stages of growth and maturity. It was also an area of intensive cultivation in which beds were crowded together with little or no spare room, “every available inch of the cave being occupied.” Moreover, it was kept extremely clean at all times so that everything looked in “perfect condition.”

The harvest went on every day, growers “occasionally sending more than 400 lb. weight per day, the average being about 300 lb.” The white button mushrooms produced for the Paris market were Agaricus bisporus. The beds were of two basic shapes, both of which we see in this image.

MushroomCave

The key was good manure; it is the same with cooking, you have to start with good ingredients. Champignonnistes wanted “ordinary stable manure, not droppings [from the street].” There is manure and manure, and the stuff in the street could easily be contaminated with other things. The manure “is thrown into heaps four or five feet high, and perhaps thirty feet wide. The men were employed turning this over, the mass being afterwards stamped down with their feet, a water-cart and pots being used to thoroughly water the manure where it is dry and white.” After five or six weeks it would be ready for mushroom cultivation.

Then into the underground caves, where the half-decomposed manure would be mixed again, formed and compacted into shape. It was planted with what Robinson calls “mushroom spawn,” including the naturally occurring version that grows in manure, which Robinson said ensured the best mushrooms. The beds would be covered with about an inch of soil. This soil was “simply sifted from the rubbish of the stone-cutters above, giving the recently made bed the appearance of being covered with putty.”

Harvesting was labour-intensive. It was not just a matter of pulling the mushrooms out and moving on. Instead, when the mushrooms were removed, “the very spot in which they grew is scraped out, so as to get rid of every trace of the old bunch, and the space covered with a little earth from the bottom of the heap. It is the habit to do this in every case, and when the gatherer leaves a small hole from which he has pulled even a solitary Mushroom, he fills it with some of the white earth from the base.” It is this extraordinary capacity for taking pains, for looking after the details, that I believe is the secret of French food.

The indefatigable Robinson also visited another mushroom farm owned by a Monsieur Renaudot on September 29, 1868, in Frépillon, Méry-sur-Oise.* He took the train, alighting at Auvers. Again, he found “vast quarries in the neighbourhood, both for building-stone and the plaster so largely used in Paris.”

Frepillon

The entry point to this farm was in the side of a hill “so that the interior looks like a vast gloomy cathedral.” The method of careful cultivation and “perfect cleanliness” was similar to that at Montrouge. However, there was a significant difference: “The chief advantage the cultivator here has is the facility of taking his manure of anything else in or out in carts, as easily as if the beds were made in the open air. Near Paris, on the contrary, everything has to be sent up and down through shafts like those of old wells, and the men have to creep up and down a rough pole like mice.”

Renaudot“All the manure employed is brought from Paris by rail. … so much per horse per month is paid in Paris for the manure; then it has to be carted to the railway station and loaded in the wagons; next it is brought to the station of Auvers, and afterwards carted a couple of miles to the quarries, paying a toll for a bridge over the Oise on the way. That surely is difficulty enough for a cultivator to begin with! Then it is placed in great flat heaps…and here it is prepared, turned over and well mixed three times, and as a rule watered twice. About five or six weeks are occupied in the preparation.” And this went on constantly, day in and day out.

Over time, the manure lost its nutritional value and had to be removed. It was then used in gardens for mulch. Nothing was wasted.

In a good year, the underground caves at Méry-sur-Oise produced 3,000 pounds a day. It was all astounding for a method developed only in the early nineteenth century, by a Monsieur Chambry. But perhaps not surprising in a country that takes growing food as seriously as preparing and eating it.

311-11

Text by Norman Ball. Additional images from the Google Book edition of The Parks, Promenades & Gardens of Paris by William Robinson and Gallica maps. Picture of mushroom sellers at Les Halles from Paris en Images.

For insight into the modern cultivation of mushrooms in caves (in the Loire Valley), click here.

* Méry-sur-Oise was the location of Baron Haussmann’s unrealized plan to build a giant cemetery outside the city and send the bodies there by train. He chose it because the area had sandy soil that would aid decomposition.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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14 Responses to Mushrooms, manure, and the secret of French food

  1. Rosemary Poole says:

    Fascinating, thank you so much for this. I wonder about one thing, though. You mention that they grow agaricus bisporus, which makes sense to me. These are the common commercial mushrooms. But the photo shows what I believe are some type of chanterelle, which I did indeed see in the Paris markets this summer, but which in the US are wild mushrooms, although I think some attempt is being made to cultivate them. Do you know, are chanterelles being cultivated in France these days?

    • Well spotted! Yes, those are chanterelles, and they happened to be the only pictures of mushrooms from a French market that we had on hand. We wanted to end the blog with something current. As for cultivation, we would have to do some research. We’ll let you know what we find out.

      Norman and Philippa

    • On second thoughts, we decided to replace that photo to avoid further confusion. We hope you like the one of mushroom sellers at Les Halles.

    • Susan Walter says:

      Rosemary — chanterelles (aka girolles) are not cultivated, they are always harvested from the wild. The person who discovers the secret of how to cultivate them (and cepes and trompettes de mort) will make a fortune!

  2. Janet Chapman says:

    As a Canadian spending five months in Paris, I was delighted to discover your blog. With your obvious love for the city and painstaking research, your fascinating articles are enriching my own experience of Paris, from the Wallace fountains to the custom house on the Basin de la Villette. Truly a pleasure to read.

    • We envy you your five months in Paris. One day we would love to do the same thing…spend a few months at a time, instead of a few weeks at a time. Thank you for your interest and comments. And let us know if you discover something unusual yourself!

      Norman and Philippa

  3. Susan Walter says:

    For information on the current state of the mushroom growing industry you might be interested to read my blog post on the Mushroom Caves of Bourré.

    Another fascinating blog post on your part — the William Robinson connection is a nice touch, and it is very interesting to see these old engravings to see how like (and unlike) today’s mushroom caves they are.

  4. Pingback: Paris: A Maze of Mushroom Caves | FrenchNewsOnline

  5. Chipkins Glogwog says:

    Your posts enlighten the mind and enliven the soul. Thank you for taking the time to write and share them with us. I shall be heading over to Paris in October for a seven month stay and have printed out your blogs in order to have them in hand while I wander the areas discussed. Merci mille fois.

  6. Cam says:

    The City of London has been considering the installation of a mushroom garden in an old rail tunnel. The tunnel would be purely ornamental, and not productive, however. Perhaps that is unfortunate, as a tunnel already equipped with lights and rails might be serviceable as a source of posh fungi.

  7. Pingback: A city built on air | Parisian Fields

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