woensdag 14 december 2011

Trip along the Loire: between little bleu feet and sumo-wrestlers…

Madame Tardif in the middle of her mysterious mushroom cubes...
Who of you has ever been to the Loire valley to admire its beautiful castles? According to the number of enthusiastic fingers I see up in the air, I would say most of you. But who has also paid a visit during his Loire trip to the birthplace of all these white renaissance pearls? No fingers in the air anymore? Of course, why would you go fifty meters down the earth to have a walk in a cold and drafty limestone quarry if you can just as easily admire some limestone outside from a sunny castle garden? There is no logic in that, is there? And yet, that’s precisely what my twenty-five co-students and I did last week.
Of course, we had a very good reason for doing so since the limestone quarries of the little village of Bourré give home to one of the oldest mushroom farms of France. The quarries where the kings of France got the marvelous stone for their castles appear to be the ideal environment for mushrooms. Not only because they are always humid and you can constantly feel a slight flow of air running through them but also because the temperature inside is stable and around 13°C. Having no kings left to sell their limestone to and noticing the extraordinary conditions of their quarries, Louis Faye and Emirin Buchet decided in 1893 to start using the caves to grow Parish mushrooms. In very short time La Cave des Roches sold two hundred tons of Parish mushrooms a month and continued doing so for years until farmers in the early eighties discovered that one can grow Parish mushrooms about ten times faster in greenhouses.
As we all can understand, a mushroom which grows ten times faster costs ten times less than its slower growing little brother from the limestone quarries. That it also has ten times less taste, is filled with water and rots ten times as fast, didn’t really seem to matter to the big French supermarkets. They only offered their clients the cheap greenhouse mushrooms pronouncing death to most traditional mushroom growers. Except to our friends of Bourré! Since they thoroughly believed that real quality products would always find themselves a buyer, they simply decided to aim for a gastronomic top public.
And right they were. Because the big stars of contemporary haute cuisine would rather eat their toque than have to present a greenhouse mushroom to their guests. And so La Cave des roches started to sell more and more to top restaurants and began growing new and rare mushrooms that wouldn’t have to blush in the company of the other ingredients of Michelin star chefs. Yellow oyster mushrooms proved to be very fancied, just like the famous purple wood blewits. The pieds bleus like the French call them, are most appreciated by chefs because they have a very striking taste and get really crunchy when you bake them, with a nice surprise effect as a result.
But the most exotic of the luxury mushrooms you can find in Bourré is the Japanese Shiitake. The strange thing about this mushroom is the fact that for growing it doesn’t only need a flow of air, some humidity and a cool, constant temperature but also a seismic effect! Doriane Tardif, our guide, explained to us that in nature, these mushrooms are only willing to pop their little heads above the ground after an earthquake. Therefore, gastronomes had to wait until researchers finally discovered the importance of these shocks before they could find and buy this delicacy at mushroom farms.
Thanks to this discovery, nowadays mushroom farmers create relatively small cubes filled with earth, manure and the spores of the Japanese fungus and throw them with a big smash on the floor. After this, they violently punch each cube in order to get the growing process started. It is one hell of a job and certainly not suitable for the small and tiny of us. But at least it made me understand after thirty years of wondering why Japan is the country of the sumo-wrestlers! It has nothing to do with old, imperial traditions like everyone always believes. Sumo-wrestlers are just disguised Shiitake growers smashing the little fellows out of the ground by producing local earthquakes! Nothing more, but certainly nothing less!

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