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PARIS

Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

Two centuries ago, French farmers revolutionised mushroom production by moving into the maze of limestone quarries underneath Paris, but today only a handful still cultivate a heritage at risk of fading away for good.

Button mushrooms are grown in caves underneath Paris.
Button mushrooms are grown in caves underneath Paris. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

The bitter irony is that demand for traditionally grown white button mushrooms, and their more flavourful brown-capped cousins, is as high as ever.

“It’s not a question of finding clients, I sell everything I can produce,” said Shoua-moua Vang at Les Alouettes in Carrieres-sur-Seine, a short drive from the bustling La Defence business district west of the capital.

Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river.

He counts Michelin-starred chefs as well as supermarket chains and local markets among his customers, even though he deems his mushrooms “expensive” at €3.20 a kilo wholesale.

But dank trays loaded with hundreds of kilogrammes of fungi were going to waste during a recent visit, because Vang lacked enough hands to pick them all.

Just five of his 11 workers were on the job after the others called in sick – and Vang was doubtful that all of them would actually return.

“People these days don’t want to work all day in the dark like vampires,” he said, estimating that this day’s production would top out at 1.5 tonnes instead of his usual 2.5 or even three tonnes.

Button mushrooms in Montesson, outside Paris. Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP

He is one of just five traditional producers of what the French call “champignons de Paris” located around the capital, along with an even smaller number in abandoned quarries north of the capital.

That’s down from around 250 in the late 19th century, when farmers flocked to a “royal” mushroom variety that the Sun King, Louis XIV, had made popular by having it grown at Versailles.

They had discovered that Agaricus bisporus would grow year-round if placed in a manure-based substrate deep underground, where temperatures and humidity could be controlled and the dark would encourage growth.

It also turned out that the caves’ earthy atmosphere, reinforced by covering the compost with ground-up limestone, imparted a nutty, almost mineral taste while preventing the mushrooms from becoming over-saturated with water.

Even the macabre tunnels of the Paris catacombs, now a top tourist attraction, were once filled with mushroom beds.

These days the Paris Catacombes are filled with tourists, but previously they too contained mushroom beds. Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP

Rapid urbanisation and in particular the construction of the Paris Metro began pushing growers out of the capital in the early 1900s, though around 50 were still in quarries under Paris suburbs in the 1970s, often run by new generations of the same family.

The arrival of cheaper imports from industrial hangars in the Netherlands, Poland and later China, which use peat instead of limestone to boost production rates, proved too much for most.

“It’s hard to find people who want to take over because there’s no mushroom cultivation programmes in agriculture schools,” said Muriel Le Loarer, who is working to revive the Paris mushroom tradition at the SAFER rural development agency.

Vang, for example, had worked 11 years at the quarry owned by Jean-Louis Spinelli, whose children declined to follow in their father’s footsteps, before taking over in September 2020.

“Finding people to pick the mushrooms is complicated, it’s hard to find good compost, and people don’t want to invest when you don’t know if producers are going to make it,” Spinelli said.

“We’re promoting the sector, helping to find financing and working with local authorities to open quarries back up,” said Le Loarer, noting the growing interest in local produce and the farm-to-table trend.

For now, though, Paris mushrooms are just a tiny fraction of the 90,000 tonnes produced in France each year, according to figures from the Rungis wholesale market south of the capital.

Officials say it’s too late to create a distinctive “Paris mushroom” certification under France’s AOP food appellation rules, since the name has been used generically for decades.

That means producers face a marketing challenge to ensure people realise when they’re buying the authentic, quarry-farmed fungi.

“Here our mushrooms grow naturally, I don’t boost them by spraying water because that fills them with water,” Vang said. “These mushrooms from the huge hangars are basically grown by computers.”

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FOOD & DRINK

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”

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