04 July 2010

The mushroom “caves” in Bourré

That word « cave » is a funny one. In French, a "cave" is not a cave at all, but what we would call a cellar. A wine cellar is a cave à vin, and a mushroom cellar is a cave champignonnièrechampignons being mushrooms. What we call a "cave" in English is a caverne or a grotte in French. The caveman is « l'homme des cavernes ».

The hillsides along riverbanks — they are limestone cliffs in many places — of the area called the Loire Valley, have miles and miles of « caves » (pronounced [kahv]) carved into them. They aren't caves —they're tunnels. They are man-made and in French they are called « galeries », which is another word for tunnel, or underground passageways.

The tunnels of one old limestone quarry in Bourré
are used for cultivating mushrooms now.

The three or four miles of riverbank along the north side of the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire, between the town of Montrichard and the village of Bourré, are made up of limestone cliffs that have something like 400 km — 250 miles — of such tunnels carved into them. The tunnels earn the name "cellars" or « caves » when they are used for growing mushrooms or storing wines.

The work of carving out such an extensive network of tunnels began in Roman times. It was a quarrying operation. When the Romans arrived in the Loire Valley two thousand years ago, they needed stone to build their villas, baths, and temples. The local stone is soft limestone, and some of the best is found in and around the village now known as Bourré. It's fairly easy to quarry by hand.

To get to the quarry entrance, groups of
tourists have to cross the road in Bourré.

Before the Romans arrived, the local people — the Gauls, who were Celts — built their houses and other buildings out of wood. But the Romans wanted stone buildings. Digging tunnels into the cliffs along the river at Bourré and carving out blocks of limestone went on from Roman times until 1914. That was the year when the limestone ran out. Digging out any more blocks of limestone was threatening to make the whole structure collapse.

At Bourré, the section where the Caves des Roches mushroom cellars are located consists of 120 km, or 72 miles, of tunnels on seven levels in the limestone outcropping. It's a real labyrinth. In the Renaissance, 500 years ago, the stone that the good king Francis I — François 1er in French — ordered for the construction of his monumental château at Chambord, 20 miles northeast, came from Bourré. It was the finest, whitest limestone available.

When we took the quarry tour at Bourré a few days ago, the guide gave us her explanation for the origin of the name of the village. « Bourré » is a funny word in French. It's the past participle of a verb that means "to stuff" — as in to stuff a pillow or cushion. By extension, you say something is bourré when it is jam-packed with stuff, all crammed in — too much furniture in a room, for example, or too much money in a wallet, or too many mistakes in a composition.

Tourists on the mushroom tour at Bourré

By further extension, « bourré » is also a slang or informal French word used to describe somebody who has had too much to drink — who is sloshed, plastered, or falling-down drunk. Sometimes you hear it pronounced or see it spelled « beurré » — "buttered" would be the English term. By the way, why do we say "plastered" anyway?

So are all the inhabitants of the village called Bourré habitually plastered? Well, maybe, but probably not any more than the residents of a hundred other villages in the Loire Valley, where the wine is cheap and eminently drinkable. If that's the meaning of the village name, it is ironic that the tunnels at Bourré are given over to cultivating mushrooms rather than to cellaring wines.

Emerging from the chilly, dark quarry tunnels
into the hot late-June sunlight

The tour guide at Bourré had a different explanation. She said the name of the village goes back only to the Renaissance and the quarrying of the good white limestone blocks that Good King François used to build his Chambord "hunting lodge." You have to know that in old French, words like « roi » and
« François » were not pronounced [Rwah] and [frã-swah] the way they are today.

In the olden days, the word « roi », which means "king," was pronounced as [Rweh]. So the people called the local limestone that the king had chosen for his palace "the stone of the good king" — « la pierre du bon rwè » — and « bon rwè », with the flapped R of old French, soon evolved phonetically into the name Bourré.

Ah, the joys of language and etymologies. I'm not sure I believe the story. I bet Bourré was called that, or something similar, long before the Renaissance. Quarrying there had been going on for more than a thousand years by the time King François 1er got involved.

More about mushroom cultivation to come...

P.S. Have a look at Martine's blog post about our visit to Jean-Noël and Chantal Guerrier's winery in May. Our neighbors make excellent wine and always welcome visitors warmly and with great humor.


  1. Hi Ken, We visited Bourré in 2000 during our second Loire Valley trip. At the time the 'underground' village was still in a 'primary' stage. I'm looking forward to see what it looks like nowadays. Martine

  2. Loved the history lesson.

  3. Think I have just become your latest follower:-) What an interesting post and if we head that way a definite place to visit. Will check some of your past posts over the next few days. Cheers, Diane

  4. Merci pour la leçon d'étymologie, c'est très intéressant, Professeur Broadhurst :-) Bises Mary/Marie in Normandy

  5. Merci aussi pour la lecon et l'hisoire des mots. A prochain fois!

    Helen de Barbade


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