The Paris Catacombs. Who Knew?

When I first visited Paris in the early 80’s, one of many things I did was visit the catacombs beneath the city. You can wander for miles down there, amongst the bones of more than 6 million people. It’s grisly, but fascinating.

I really enjoyed the adventure, right up until the moment when the power went out, and I was plunged into the most profound darkness I’d ever experienced before or since. Suddenly I felt as though the bones were, I don’t know, aware, or something. I felt outnumbered. I instantly grabbed the hand of the person closest to me. I have no idea whose hand it was. Fortunately the lights came back on about a minute later, or I might very well have lost my mind. Instead, I had a nice nervous giggle. That is one of those travel memories that stay with you for life.

So, I was quite fascinated when I came across an article entitled, The Secret History of Paris’s Catacomb Mushrooms. It discusses the fact that many of Paris’ iconic buildings were built from limestone quarried from beneath the city. A lot has gone on beneath the Paris streets indeed.

The article does discuss the well-known ossuaries down there. After several cemetery cave-ins in the late 1700’s, the bones of those Parisians were stacked in the quarries and remain there to this day. But there is even more to these catacombs than that.

It seems that they were used by members of the French Resistance to hide their activities from the Nazis, and also as a hideout for deserters from Napoleon’s armies. Quite a fascinating history. Who knows who or what is down there today.

But what is really interesting, at least to me, is that someone discovered that the Parisian mushroom thrives down there. It likes the temperature and the moist environment. Back in 1880, the article says, “more than 300 mushroom farmers worked in Parisian quarries to produce 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms each year.”

Apparently these mushrooms were very flavorful and popular. But when they started building the Paris Metro above the quarries in 1896, most of the mushroom farmers left, because the quarries were already getting dangerous due to disrepair. Now there are no mushroom farmers under the city.

The Paris mushroom has survived, but it is mostly produced in China. One half of one percent of all Paris mushrooms are produced in France, and those are now mostly grown in an industrial setting. They don’t taste remotely as good as they once did.

What a pity. I do love a good ‘shroom. Especially one with an intriguing history.

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