Caps Off to Succulent French Mushrooms

The Gallic passion for food extends to fungi

Picture this: a pushing, heaving mass of people straining at crowd-control barriers as a lone security guard bleats into his walkie-talkie for backup.

Salmon swimming upstream might have an easier time than the people trying to get into Paris's autumn mushroom fair, but the mushroom lovers would argue theirs is the better reward.

After a few hours under the fair's white canopied tents, most visitors would have to agree. For the devotees, there is a palette of exotic mushrooms: frilly, pink parasols; sturdy lilac flutes; tiny brown wisps that look like fairy trumpets; and spongy blobs the size and texture of a cauliflower.

For novices, rewards lie in the simple displays that explain the hard science and culinary alchemy of mushrooms. And for visitors to France, there is the added reward of an insight into what people really mean when they say the French love their food.

"We are a food culture," explains Amelie Jolivet, a spokeswoman for the Museum of Natural History, which organizes the fair. "It's an important part of who we are and where we come from, and in the fall, everyone thinks about mushrooms. It's the natural thing to do."

At the fair, held since 1904, people don't just think about mushrooms, they get out cameras for close-ups of a particularly fetching fungus, sniff, touch, peer, and discuss them the way others would talk about art.

"Ravishing!" an elegantly dressed woman gushes, gazing at a cluster of plump, butter-yellow mushrooms called pleurotes.

Outside, kiosks are doing brisk business to enthralled fairgoers. Mushroom books, calendars, magnets, umbrellas, diaries, board games, bags, jewelry, and posters don't sell quite as well as the most popular item, the mushrooms themselves, which range from $2 to $20 a pound.

Mushroom appreciation starts early. An elementary school class from the cole Maternelle is quick to pipe up when their guide asks what mushrooms they know of the 600 on display. "Girolles!" "Cpes!" "Truffles!" come the cries, as their teacher looks on approvingly.

Food appreciation is often part of school curricula. Local chefs come in to talk about what they do and give tastings to educate young palates. Many of France's 180 mushrooming societies also encourage young foodie passion by selling comic books that feature mushroom characters who explain themselves.

"The education's important," explains Ren Hentic, president of the 103-year-old Mycological Society of France. (Mycology, of course, is the study of mushrooms.) "Anyone with a pair of boots and a bag can go mushrooming and the most dangerous people are those who know a little."

Not far from his booth, laden with microscopes and charts, the kids from cole Maternelle are all ears as their education continues. They learn that mushrooms are 5 million years old and that we don't know much about them: Only 5 percent of the world's species have been identified. The children wriggle forward for the presentation of a pictorial history of the white button mushroom, known here with Gallic pride as the mushroom of Paris.

The pride is understandable when you learn that mushroom cultivation developed along with Paris. Louis XIV began the process by having his gardeners cultivate them in dark, damp caves beneath his palaces, but it took Napoleon I to engineer year-round urban cultivation.

By the 19th century, most of the underground grottoes in Paris were used as mushroom farms and from there, cultivation rapidly spread to the suburbs and provinces.

Today, to protect the public, stores selling mushrooms must get permission and confirmation of the species from a government office with each batch they put out on the shelves. The safety measures have protected the French against mushroom-related fatalities since they were introduced.

For those who prefer to venture into France's loamy, fertile woods to find their own mushrooms, Mr. Hentic estimates it takes 8 to 10 years to become really knowledgeable.

Despite that challenge, wild mushrooms inspire the real passion, and for proof you need only look at some of the French laws about them. They might be the world's only examples of ardent bureaucratic prose: Article 583 of the Civil Code rhapsodizes about mushrooms as the natural fruits of the earth, and the French Supreme Court itself has declared that truffles constitute a culture unto themselves.

There are no truffles on display at the fair - it isn't truffle season and the fair staff jokes that it wouldn't have the security to guard them. The crowds of up to 35,000 are unruly and giddy enough. "Say 'mushroom' to a Frenchman," says Ms. Jolivet as she twirls a finger in the air by her head, "and they just go crazy."

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