18 January 2009

The mushroom lady

At the Saint-Aignan market on Saturday mornings, there are pork butcher/deli stands, fruit and vedge sellers, a big seafood stall, a great cheese vendor, two poultry merchants, a beef butcher's truck, and even a horse butcher. And there's the mushroom lady.

Mushrooms from the mushroom lady in Saint-Aignan

The mushroom lady works alone. She doesn't have a fancy truck like the butchers do. Those vehicles are a little like the trucks we used to call "roach coaches" out of which sandwiches, cakes, cookies, and soft drinks were sold in the parking lots around office complexes in Silicon Valley. They are fitted out with refrigerated cabinets for meats and other perishables.

No, the mushroom lady just has a folding table. She has big baskets full of mushrooms of different varieties, depending on the week. Yesterday, she had small and enormous white button mushrooms (champignons blancs), brown button mushrooms (champignons blonds), oyster mushrooms (pleurotes), and big shitake mushrooms (called shitakes in French too).

English peas and button mushrooms are a good combination.

These are not wild mushrooms gathered in the forest. They are cultivated varieties. The blancs and blonds button mushrooms sell for 3.60€ a kilogram. The mushroom lady sells them in 100-gram increments, and she'll sell you a pound of button mushrooms for 1.80€ — no surcharge for the smaller quantity.

Trim them up and wash them quickly
in a stream of running water

The mushroom lady must be in her late 50s or 60s. She has short, thick gray hair and is unfailingly friendly and smiling. Sometimes there's a line of customers waiting, but yesterday there was nobody there when I arrived. She was in the process of setting up a big umbrella over her little stand, because an icy cold rain was starting to fall.

One of the occupational hazards of being the mushroom lady is dirty hands. She has to handle those mushrooms all morning, and they haven't been washed. The bottoms of the stems — les bouts terreux — haven't even been cut off. You get the impression that these mushrooms were gathered earlier the same morning. You have to trim and wash or brush them yourself.

The mushroom lady at the market in Saint-Aignan

Growing mushrooms used to be big business in the Loire Valley, but it has faded away with the advent of mushroom farming on an industrial scale in places like Holland and Poland.

They say the mushroom lady grows her own. Apparently, she works out of a cave carved into a chalky hillside in our village. There were rumors a few months ago that she was going to retire, and that we would no longer get fresh local champignons in Saint-Aignan. And for a few weeks a younger woman actually took her place on Saturday mornings.

Champignons blancs sliced and ready to cook

But now the mushroom lady is back. I always buy some mushrooms from her when I go to the market, whether I have specific plans for them or not. They are more attractive, fresher-looking, and less expensive than the artificially clean-looking mushroom you see at the supermarket.

Did you know you can keep fresh button mushrooms (called champignons de Paris in French) for a long time in a paper bag in the refrigerator and they won't go bad? They might dry out and shrivel up a little, but if you rehydrate them the way you rehydrate any dried mushrooms, by soaking them in water for 30 minutes, they will be very good still. In fact, some say the flavor only improves with age. (Thanks to Chrissoup for this tip.)


  1. Hi Ken, My friend Christian is a big fan of mushrooms. Personally I only appreciate them as an ingredient in traditional dishes such as 'vol au vent' and 'blanquette de veau'. I don't mind the occasional toast of wild mushrooms with garlic and parsely, however. But Christian considers mushrooms as a vegetable in its own right; which - technically speaking - they are not, or are they? Martine

  2. Hello Martine, nice to read you. I think Christian is right: I too love mushrooms as a vegetable. Or as an ingredient in boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and blanquette de veau. In omelettes and quiches. And champignons à la grecque. Or mushroom soup. The list is endless.

  3. Beautiful mushrooms. PA produces a lot of mushrooms, but never as fresh as the ones in your photos by the time they reach us.

    It's so nice to see a photo of St Aignan's market.

    We were given a mushroom jar--from NC, actually, the potteries area near Sanford--with five holes in the top. It doesn't hold much but it works and it's pretty.

  4. Like Carolyn, I enjoyed seeing a photo of the St. Aignan market! Man oh man, those are the cleanest and freshest looking mushrooms I've seen in a very long time (actually, since I lived in Paris, I'd say). I, too, love mushrooms.

    Thanks for the tips on keeping them and rehydrating them...I didn't realize you could do either!

  5. Great picture of Saint Aignan's market. I wish you could have taken more. The prices are really good. Here in Los Angeles, I pay almost $10 for Shitakes and they are not that fresh. What a beautiful sunset picture Walt took. The 6 french blogs I follow are making me homesick.

  6. We got a Mushroom Adventures kit for Christmas and Harriett's been growing white button mushrooms in the spare bedroom. If only we had a cave.

    They definitely taste better than the wrapped ones from the store.

  7. Nadège, I will post more pictures of the Saint-Aignan market. I don't take pictures there very often, because once when I did one of the vendors I've gotten to know said: On fait le touriste aujourd'hui ?

    Tom, do you have to darken the bedroom for mushrooms to grow? Are you using the manure your horses produce as the growing medium?

  8. Another kitchen tip:
    Wrap celery in aluminum foil. It stays crisper and lasts longer.

  9. Mitch has been growing mushrooms for years. I bought him a new portabella box for Christmas, and we've had 3- to 4-inch portabellas for a week now. I put them in pot roast the other night. I also have a mushroom bread pudding recipe from Williams Sonoma that's pretty yummy.

    He had the mushroom box (really a box filled with dirt that comes with the spores in it) in our bedroom, and I asked him to move it to the garage. It doesn't have to be dark, but it shouldn't be in direct sunlight. Mitch buys dehydrated shiitakes for use in many Asian recipes and soaks them.

    Mushrooms are a fungus, not a true vegetable, but they complement so many dishes. I prefer them cooked to raw ones. If I eat them raw (in salad, for example), I don't like big pieces. They have to be sliced pretty thin.

    You always talk about beets as having the earthy taste, and I feel that way about mushrooms, too.

  10. Hi Ginny, now I feel like we should try growing mushrooms. We don't have a place that stays cool in summertime, but I guess we could start in the fall. I'm going to look up that recipe for mushroom bread pudding. Sounds good. We buy boletus and shitake mushrooms in their dried form. Have you ever tried Greeked Mushrooms, cooked with lemon, white wine, olive oil, coriander seeds, bay leaf, and a little tomato paste?

  11. The kit comes in a box with growing media (compost) and spores already in it. The room shades are closed, but that's it. You close the top of the box if you need to keep them dark. We have the heat turned off in there now so it's a bit cooler than the rest of the house.

    If you have a cellar you could probably grow them year round. They have some dowels impregnated with spores that you can use to inoculate stumps and logs outdoors. From the description on the website it looks like they produce for a long time. That might be an alternative for you.

  12. My brother gave us a shiitake log for XMas. I've been looking for a good, cool (not freezing) location to start it. I just realized that out bonus room is probably the best place in the house.

    I'll let you know how we do.


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