January 1, 1970France’s Loire Valley is famous for its caves as well as its chateaux. The caves cultivated mushrooms, house wine and troglodytes, among other things.
The first mushrooms I ever met were canned. They were small, brown, rubbery things. I had no idea there was such a thing as a fresh mushroom, and couldn’t imagine it. I certainly had no idea that a mushroom was the fruit of a fungi.
I was also familiar with little pieces of mushrooms, in cream of mushroom soup. There was also not much connection in my mind with fresh mushrooms. I did see pictures, I’m sure, of mushrooms. But matching the canned things with pictures was impossible.
By the time I went to cooking school in England I knew there were mushrooms didn’t grow in cans, but certainly didn’t remember seeing any in grocery stores in America.
Now I have seen button mushrooms grow in many unlikely places. In Italy I met all kinds of lush beautiful mushrooms, and in Finland I once saw 100 varieties (including poisonous) growing in one front yard. In the US we have at least 15 varieties of poisonous ones. There was a patch of porcini in front of my home in Atlanta. Once I was assured they were safe by an expert, I ate them. With my inattention to detail, I’ve been afraid to go mushroom hunting on my own. A friend of mine in Vermont, however, goes morel hunting every year, bringing home hundreds of them for drying or freezing. Wild mushrooms should be gathered only by real mushroom experts, and many states ban the selling of them.
The first troglodyte my husband and I ever met was on a walking tour with the tour group Wayfarers in France’s Loire Valley some years ago. The beautifully lit cave, in which he lived with his family, was full of light, its white walls rounded, some with windows, some with niches for lights, books, or other artifacts. It made me think of a hobbit’s home.
Some of these caves are so astounding that this spring, when our Granddaughter came to visit us during our time there, she decided she wanted to become a troglodyte after graduation from college -- it’s an inexpensive way to live in France, with an adjustment for taxes. The caves, hollowed out by miners over centuries, are used for more than homes. Among those uses are wine cellars and mushroom growing. The owner of the land above the cave owns the cave.
We visited a mushroom cave owned by the family of the owner of our local café in our small town, Julien. Julien served mushrooms regularly in his cafe, extolling their virtues. “Shiitakes are higher in potassium than a small banana, trace minerals, B complex vitamins, no calories, and,” he insisted, “umami” - the quality of boosting flavor.” (Umami means “delicious” in Japanese.)
We were able to taste each mushroom, picked freshly for us. Standing there in the dimly lit caves, surrounded by mushrooms of every sort, I fell in love again with raw mushrooms.
Not only was the cave full of rooms of cultivated mushrooms growing in sterile medium, there is an astounding space devoted to a replica of a small village, with horses and cats, houses and churches, all carved in the limestone of the region.
The French button mushroom was originally called the “Champignon of Paris” and has been cultivated in these caves since the 1870’s. Cultivation enabled the French, many of whom still collect their own wild mushrooms, to have a safe steady supply for those who didn’t want to chance the poisonous ones.
The French were a little late in cultivating mushrooms. The Japanese learned how to cultivate shiitake mushrooms two thousand years ago. The use of the term “wild” on a menu is usually inaccurate. In fact, the mushrooms we think of and call “wild” mushrooms are usually not “wild” at all, but specialty cultivated mushrooms.
Mushrooms are cultivated all over the United States as well, with Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the leading producer, but with many coming from California and other West Coast areas.