On Thursday we visited the mushroom caves of Champion Mushrooms at Loches.... now MPC [Mushroom Production Caves] where they are developing an organic mushroom business in the former production caves of Paris White mushrooms.
While the rain and wind walloped the walnut trees on the hillside, underground all was still. A hundred years ago, things would have been very different. "Le Champion" employed as many as 300 people, and were the first to apply scientific techniques to mushroom production. They perfected a strain of the white Paris mushroom that became a worldwide standard, and researched optimal growing conditions so that for the first time mushrooms could be grown on an industrial scale. They sold fresh mushrooms, but also supported a massive canning operation in Bordeaux, and produced packs of spawn for other growers.
|Charles Gillard - Founder of "Le Champion" - in 1900|
The temperature in the caves varies by only a couple of degrees, and the Japanese mushrooms now installed there grow without heating, but we saw a huge pit where the coal-fired boiler serving the Paris mushrooms once stood. There was underground stabling for horses, to draw the carts which took the mushrooms down to the railway station. There were dog kennels and even a bread oven. Phillipe Gillard, Jim's business partner, is the great-grandson of the founder of "Le Champion" and drives around the caves in a battered 2CV. Unfortunately we were unable to meet him today, but we look forward to learning more about the history of his family business.
|"Your Subterranean Tour Taxi!"|
In the meantime we have some of the history that was displayed in an earlier museum that was set up some years ago, as well as some shots of the new style of mushroom growing.
Mushroom growing was only comercialized on the Touraine region in 1854 when Charles Gillard [above] started growing mushrooms in the caves left behind by the quarrymen who supplied the stone to build Loches. There are [as mentioned] 30 hectares of caves on this site... hence the 2CV [and, one hopes, expert knowledge of the way around]
|A potted history of mushroom cultivation in Touraine by Paul Gillard|
This developed into a business that not only supplied mushrooms to markets but, quite rapidly, began to develope the growing mediums and cultures for successful crops. The poster below shows the growth of the canned mushrooms produced by Gillard and Co from 1902 to 1909. They were marketed as "Royal Champignon".
|Growth from just under 500,000 to almost 4 million cans in seven years.|
|And these are the canners at work.|
By the early 1990s they were growing and supplying medium for over a dozen different types of fungi including:
Shiitaké, Paris White, Shaggy Ink-cap [Coprinus comatus], different strains of Oyster Mushrooms [Pleurotus species] and Enokitaké. Some of these are pictured below with onginal pickers baskets.
|A cornucopia of fungi|
There has even been a Shiitaké beer brewed for a restaurant in Belgium.... apparently it tasted good. But this bottle was empty and I've only got the drinkers word for that.... but he likes a good beer!