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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)