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Better Choices

La Caverne sprouts new life in abandoned urban spaces

Words by Camille Anais Semprez
Photography by Celia Spenard-Ko

Shiitake mushrooms grown in La Caverne.

Shiitake mushrooms being grown in La Caverne.

Dark and damp concrete corridors often lead to unexpected spaces. Somewhere in the 18th arrondissement of Paris an otherwise inconspicuous parking lot is host to such a place. It isn’t a Berghain-esque rave that you’ll find here but it is home to creatures that seem to prefer the shadows as well. La Caverne happens to be Paris’ only organic urban farm. I spoke to Jean-Noël over the phone, one of the founders of this agrifood- start-up, to learn more.

In the bowels of this social housing apartment complex, the fruit of the fungus sprout from rows of lego-like blocks created from organic material. And I am told a faint umami smell of toasted sesame fills the air. At La Caverne, you’ll find a variety of mushrooms, as well as chicory and mircro-sprouts. All of these crops mostly prefer to stay out of the sun, some even thrive in total obscurity. “Mushrooms would typically grow in the shade of a tree, so we do have a little light for them… and for us”.

Co-founder Jean-Noël walking into La Caverne.
Oyster mushrooms growing in darkness.

Co-founder Jean-Noël walking into La Caverne. / Oyster mushrooms growing in darkness.

The “us” consists of about 10 employees per site, some of which live in the apartments just above. As I understand it, these futuristic farmers zip through the site’s 1,200 square meters on electric scooters. A scene that likely wouldn’t surprise you in any other start-up office. However, Jean-Noël tells me their methods are traditional, simply implemented in surprising ways. “If there is any innovation, it’s in the design”, he adds. The farm aims to minimize their carbon footprint and have a sustainable practice, in a broad sense.  Everything is done on site, from growing to conditioning to distributing locally. Deliveries are made by bicycle, to local co-ops, restauranters and farmers markets.

Growing Shiitake mushrooms in its own temperature-controlled section of the underground farm.

Growing Shiitake mushrooms in its own temperature-controlled section of the underground farm.

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About Camille Anais Semprez

Camille is a French-American writer, creative producer, script consultant, and director. An unbaptized only child of "Bible Belt", she made her way back to Paris 15 years ago to study film theory at the Sorbonne and work as an agent/producer for short-format content. She has very recently moved into an adobe in New Mexico, which she affectionately calls her "mud palace", where she continues to work freelance.

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