At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.
One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.
Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.
Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.