WINE & DINE 2012: Thinking Caps
A journey into the moist, dark-harbored and delicious existence that is growing mushrooms in Monterey County.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
The sex organ of a lion’s mane mushroom looks like it belongs under the ocean. Its ridges evoke coral, with pale yellow ribs and dramatic swirls that look like they’ve been carved by the sway of the sea, or a master sculptor. But this aquatic-looking majesty, the mushroom itself, is an afterthought when it comes to cultivating fungi.
The edible part of any mushroom – whether the woody flaps of a reishi or the rounded white cap of a button mushroom – is just the final phase in a far more delicate, mysterious and microscopic process.
The real action – and almost the entire life cycle of a mushroom – takes place in the soil, where a gentle white fuzz develops and thickens over two weeks. It’s only the last few days of a fungus’ life that it sprouts a fruiting body, what we recognize as a mushroom, which emerges to drop spores and start the whole process over again.
This life cycle, from spore to fungus to sex organ, isn’t limited to soils or rotting logs. For those who practice mushroom cultivation, it happens in damp, dark containers in damp, dark rooms.
For all of the magical art that comes with summoning delicious and increasingly popular mushrooms from little more than moist dirt and air, there’s a regimented science to growing them on a large scale, and two very different growers are applying their own strict protocol to farms in Monterey County.
At Far West Fungi in Moss Landing, lion’s manes are just one of the exotic and lucrative mushrooms propagated. They keep company with a rainbow of blue and pink oysters, shiitakes and medicinal reishis, propped on shelves where their fruiting bodies smell earthy and damp.
Just over the hills in Royal Oaks, Monterey Mushroom ships 850,000 pounds a week of white caps and portobellos. Considering mushrooms weigh barely more than a cotton ball, that’s a lot of mushrooms – and it makes Monterey Mushroom the largest grower in North America.
Each of these farms – a boutique place specializing in novelties and exotics, and a mass producer of the country’s most popular fungi – are anomalies in an agricultural region better known for berries and lettuce.
The transition from spore to edible sex organ, a brief life based on dead stuff, is a scientifically fascinating process to watch. The market niche and business practices of each of these growers, meanwhile, offers its own intriguing lens into the kingdom of fungus.
Like mushrooms which can look more like they come from a coral reef than the terrestrial sphere, these growers seem to belong in their own world.
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Monterey Mushroom’s base evokes military bunkers more than greenhouses – but that is only appropriate, because it hosts a precise and disciplined operation. General Manager Wayne Bautista presides over the 300-acre former turkey farm, where poultry houses have been converted into climate-controlled mushroom houses and more than 700 employees decide to the minute when a perfectly sized shroom is ready for harvest.
Bautista dips his boots into an antibacterial wash before walking down a hallway and opening a door into a house of mushrooms. The basketball court-sized space is dark and moist, and he switches on a flashlight. The beams of light reveals what look like bunkers, but instead of holding mattresses, they’re packed with compost and mushroom spores.
The air is thoroughly filtered to keep pathogens from competing with fungi for the rich food supply in the compost.
“It’s basically hospital air,” Bautista says.
The terminology of mushroom farming is more medical than agricultural, too: There’s no planting here; there’s innoculation.
At first it doesn’t look like there’s anything living in the layers of dirt. But a close-up with the flashlight reveals one feathery white vein, then another, creeping up around a particle of dirt, barely larger than a bit of dust. This is infant mycelium, five days old.
In four to five weeks, a robust portobello will appear.
The fine feathers take about two weeks to thicken into more sinewy strands, which get denser as they feed off the nutrients in the compost. Then Bautista does something that could fit into a military hazing program: He cuts off those same nutrients. Crews lay a thick cushion of sphagnum moss on top. Inert and devoid of all the nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen and iron among them) fungus consumes, the spongy stuff fools the mycelium into thinking death is near.
“They need to think they’re going to die to reproduce,” Bautista says. That’s where the sexy part starts. After a couple of weeks buried under moss, fruiting bodies begin to emerge.
Once the mushrooms fruit, they double in size every 24 hours. That means a portobello the size of a quarter now will be more like a golf ball tomorrow, and a baseball the day after.
“They just take on a life of their own,” Bautista says.
It’s a life which begins long earlier, before there’s a mushroom spore anywhere nearby: The most mysterious thing Monterey Mushroom does, in fact, is mixing compost using a secret recipe.
Bautista studied marine biology at San Diego State University, and expected he’d spend his adulthood surfing with whales. But when he worked on a mushroom farm to pay for college, he was hooked: “I just got infected,” he says.
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A shipping container marks the least natural looking spot in a neighborhood of farm fields stretching north of Moss Landing along the coast.
Inside, humidifiers transform the metallic and inhospitable space into a dark, miniature forest where fungi thrive. Kyle Garrone of Far West Fungi walks the short length of the container, examining yellowish oysters to see when the clusters of small cone-shaped mushrooms will be ready for harvest – any day.
It looks like an industrial interpretation of a backyard vertical garden, where instead of soil, packed blocks of calculated substrate line the walls. Mushrooms grow in this scientifically perfected blend of what looks like mulch, a creation Garrone has carefully configured to make ideal exotic mushroom food.
Outside the container, towering heaps of sawdust wait to be blended into substrate. Farm Manager Garrone and his 22-person team fill an autoclave (basically a giant mixer, and, at $120,000, their most expensive piece of equipment) with the ingredients: sawdust, oyster shell flour and rice bran. For shiitakes, they add gypsum as a calcium supply.
Next they heat the mulchy mix to 254-degrees Fahrenheit to keep the substrate free of pathogens like mold which will eagerly compete with mushrooms for the food supply. The scorched substrate takes at least 12 hours to cool before a small assembly line stamps the stuff into blocks, which will then be inoculated with the spores that will bring them back to life.
It’s a deliberate process; the cooked substrate is handled in a “clean room,” where workers wear full-body hazmat suits and masks to further ward away pathogens.
Different types of sawdust are better for different mushroom varieties, and Garrone is constantly testing alternatives. Shiitakes prefer oak or alder wood to pine, and the rice bran comes from Lundberg Family Farms – certified organic bakery-quality stuff, part of the farm’s organic certification.
At Monterey Mushroom, the process is similar but treated more like a secret spell. Forklifts turn heaps of straw, mixing in a proprietary – and fiercely protected – combination of water, dried poultry waste, cottonseed meal and gypsum.
“Sixty percent of our success is set here in the first three weeks,” Bautista says. “You can’t produce a good-quality mushroom from a bad-quality compost medium.”
And the life of a fungus really begins with death. That’s part of the magic of the tall, thick king trumpet mushrooms growing behind door 45 at Far West.
Mushrooms consume dead tissue, helping their substrate – whether it’s a carefully blended block of nutrient-rich ingredients, or a fallen log in the forest – decay. Unlike green plants that make food from sunlight, fungi deploy enzymes to extract nutrients from what they’re living on.
Many wild mushrooms don’t depend on death and decay. Instead, they work symbiotically with trees – porcinis like pines; chanterelle spores adore redwoods – weaving their filaments so tightly into the roots that fungus and tree become indistinguishable, swapping water and sugar. In other words, you can’t grow porcinis and chanterelles on measured bricks of substrate; they’re part of a massive organism in a forest – “to grow those,” Garrone says, “you would have to have a plantation with trees and inoculate the roots.”
To help populate his family’s San Francisco store, a fungal novelty at the Ferry Building that offers 72 varieties, including dried morels and matsutakes, powdered pioppini and maitake, Garrone doubles as a wild mushroom broker, buying as much as 2,000 pounds a week from local gatherers in peak season.
Mycology draws a cultish following of dedicated gatherers, tracking spores and their fruits to hidden corners of temperate forests. A guarded art even on an industrial scale, the wild side is even more secretive, as mushroom hunters guard their discovered plots of fungi as fiercely as commercial growers protect their air from mold. Garrone describes some of his vendors as “feral people,” tapping into hunter-gatherer roots.
As close as his sources are to their sales inventory, Garrone’s still got to rely on his own expertise, having occasionally spotted toxics in deliveries. And toxic or not, he recommends cooking every wild mushroom. “Raw morels are similar to jet fuel,” he says.
Garrone himself says he eats mushrooms about three times a week. But his obsession is more with science than, say, the earthy flavor of a mature shiitake: He prefers to talk about fungus reproduction over culinary arts, illustrating the process with x’s and dots to show haploid and diploid cells. About 25 years ago, his parents bought the mushroom farm, which had been built in the ’50s. Before rampant air conditioning, it took a naturally temperate climate like Monterey Peninsula’s to keep production going year-round.
Now he’s gotten good enough at this highly specialized farming that Far West has a corner on the exotic mushroom market.
“We pretty much have no competitors,” Garrone says, pointing at some his just-packed yellow oysters, of which he harvests about 200 pounds a week.
Over at Monterey Mushroom, where 200 pounds is just a blip, Bautista radios a grower on his walkie talkie to ask the location of a good “port” room. We walk into a chilled room of portobellos, large brown disks, with a pungent, forest-evoking flavor that makes them a good umami substitute for burgers.
They also have several things in common with homo sapiens. Mushrooms take in oxygen and emit carbon dioxide, and produce heat in the process. Some growers at Monterey Mushroom even claim their crop does better with music, so they’ll play radios.
In other words, the fungus kingdom is at least little more like humans than plants.
Bautista certainly isn’t beyond ascribing human emotion to his fungi. After peeling away some dank compost and looking at mycelium fluff, he looks satisfied with its progress and says, “It’s very, very happy in here.”
FAR WEST FUNGI’s mushrooms are available at local retailers including Whole Foods; for more, visit www.farwestfungi.com or call 728-5469. Monterey Mushrooms are sold through several grocery private labels; for more, visit www.montereymushrooms.com or call (800) 333-MUSH.