SHARE
COPY LINK

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.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua 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. 

SHOW COMMENTS