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Fun with fungi

Nov./Dec. 2010 California Country magazine

Family takes the mystery out of mushrooms.


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Ian Garrone is known as "the mushroom man" in San Francisco, where he sells a variety of mushrooms from his family's Monterey County farm.

Here's a food riddle for you: What flourishes year-round in California, doesn't need sunlight, flowers or seeds to grow and is so popular it has a whole store in San Francisco devoted to it? The answer is mushrooms, and there may be no better place to educate folks on the mysteries of mushrooms than the Far West Fungi store at the Ferry Plaza Building.

While Americans are showing a renewed interest in food and cooking, the mushroom remains an enigma to even the most knowledgeable of foodies.

"I do get a lot of people saying, 'I don't like mushrooms,'" said Ian Garrone, who co-owns and manages the small shop. "They always say, 'When I was a kid, my mom would feed me those mushrooms from a can.' With that, you're talking about one variety of mushrooms, but we have dozens of varieties of mushrooms here and I always tell them, 'There is a mushroom for everyone.'"


Ian Garrone begins the process of growing mushrooms by filling plastic bags in which the fungi will eventually grow. In a few weeks, the bags will be filled entirely by the root structure of the mushrooms, which will begin sprouting caps that will eventually grow into mature mushrooms.

Far West Fungi does try to offer a mushroom for everyone, as well as nearly every mushroom product, book and T-shirt imaginable. And despite their exotic appearance, most actually come from the family mushroom farm he runs in Monterey County with his father John, stepmother Toby and brother Kyle.

The cool ocean breezes coming off the Pacific Ocean allow the Moss Landing farm to grow mushrooms year-round, and its greenhouses span more than 60,000 square feet. Although the farmers are always experimenting with different mushroom varieties—more than 40 wild and cultivated varieties are offered at the store—their primary crops are shiitake, tree oyster (four different kinds), king trumpet, bear's head and maitake. And today's production of a couple hundred pounds per week is a far cry from the market for mushrooms when the farm began about two decades ago.

"When my parents started out, they sold the button mushrooms at a farmers market, and that was it. That was all we really had," Ian Garrone said. "But slowly we introduced a few more mushrooms and then a few more, and people gradually started getting used to the idea of there being more to mushrooms than just the button ones."

While there are thousands of mushroom varieties in the world (but not all cultivated or edible), the tried-and-true white button mushroom continues to dominate commercial production in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the button mushroom accounted for 87 percent of all domestic mushroom sales in 2001.

Worldwide mushroom production has increased twenty-fold over the past 30 years, with much of that increase occurring in the 1980s and 1990s. Demand for specialty mushrooms has been particularly strong. Asian countries continue to dominate world production and consumption, but domestic consumption has risen sharply in recent years, providing opportunities for mushroom growers like the Garrones.


The mushroom-growing Garrone family is always looking for ways to introduce new fans to their favorite fungi. From left, Ian, Kyle, John and Toby.

"At the time we started, there were very few growers here," John Garrone said. "A lot of the mushrooms came in from China, so it was a perfect window to be able to provide a fresh, unique, organic product."

That window of opportunity opened for John Garrone in 1987. He was always interested in mushrooms, but that year a business partner suggested growing the fungi in his garage, and Garrone jumped at the chance. By 1990, consumer demand for exotic mushrooms necessitated a move and the business relocated into a decommissioned cultivation facility for button mushrooms. In 2003, the Garrones bought out the partner, and they've been growing and selling certified organic mushrooms since.

"Mushrooms are one of the most unique-growing vegetables around," Toby Garrone said. "I had no idea how unique it was until I got involved in this whole thing."

The growing process begins with "bricks"—a blend of straw, rice bran and red oak sawdust in plastic bags. The bags undergo high-pressure steam treatment and are then taken into sterile rooms where workers inoculate them with fungi spawn. After a primary incubation period, the bags are moved to other rooms where, in two to three weeks, they fill with the root structure of the mushroom.

Eventually, white protrusions push up through tiny openings in the bags, and these become mushroom caps—the fruit of the plant, just as a tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant. Depending on the variety being grown, it can take another four to eight weeks to produce mushrooms that are mature and ready for harvest.

"We pick not necessarily by size, but when the mushroom's veil starts separating from the stem or when the cap is slightly curled," John Garrone said. "What we're ultimately looking for is a nice roundness and curve to the mushroom."

Each crop is hand-harvested by the Garrones and a trained staff of workers who know just what to look for in each variety. Once picked, the mushrooms are sorted by size and refrigerated to maintain freshness and quality. After that, they are packaged, labeled and sold at the San Francisco storefront or farmers markets across the Bay Area.

While Ian Garrone is in charge of the Ferry Plaza shop, other members of the family trade off going to a half-dozen farmers markets every week. The Garrones say the markets give them an opportunity to provide information about the fungi to a large number of people at one time.

"Our main goal is just to take the mystique out of mushrooms a little bit," said Kyle Garrone. "People never run out of questions for us. Just when you think you have answered every question possible about mushrooms, they come up with something you never even thought of."

"They think of mushrooms as being so daunting to get started with, like, 'What do I do with them when I get them home?'" Ian Garrone added. "I like to tell them to start out easy. Just sauté them and use them as a base for a soup, because they can add a great earthy, hearty flavor."

No matter the question or how many times they may hear a "fungi joke" (What did one mushroom say to the other mushroom? You're one fungi to be with!), the Garrone family takes it all in stride, as they are always looking to introduce new fans to their favorite fungi.

"I think people have a natural curiosity about mushrooms and we want to be the ones to educate them on how great fungi can be," John Garrone said.

For more information about Far West Fungi, visit www.farwestfungi.com.

Mushroom varieties

While there are thousands of wild and cultivated varieties of mushrooms to choose from, the Garrone family concentrates on growing and selling about 40. Here is a sampling:

King trumpet: Buttery, sweet flavor with a firm, dense texture. King trumpets go especially well with Italian dishes. Sauté or stir-fry until the edges become a crispy, golden brown. Also excellent grilled or tempura deep-fried. Because of the very firm and meaty texture of the king trumpet, it requires more cooking time than other varieties. Garrone family favorite: Trim off the ends and place in a hot oven. Once they are tender to the touch, toss with olive oil, garlic and a little sea salt and serve as a side dish.

Maitake: Intense roasted chicken flavor with a firm, crunchy texture. One of the most versatile mushrooms around. The maitake's many petals get tender when cooked, yet retain a pleasant bite. This is true whether served grilled, roasted or sautéed or in soups, stews or stir-fries. Do not wash maitake mushrooms. Simply brush with a mushroom brush or wipe gently with a paper towel. Garrone family favorites: Tear into small pieces and add to scrambled eggs or an omelet. You can also simply toss the hot grilled mushrooms with a little melted butter and then add salt, pepper and garlic paste, or chili powder and lime juice.

Morel: A relative of the highly prized truffle, with a smoky, earthy, nutty flavor. The darker the mushroom, the more pronounced the flavor. Morels can be expensive and are available fresh, canned or dried.

Shiitake: Ranging in color from tan to dark brown and characterized by broad, umbrella-shaped caps, wide open veils and tan gills. With a rich, full-bodied flavor, shiitakes are best when cooked.

Tree oyster: Can be eaten raw in salads, but is more often cooked to bring out its delicate flavor and velvety texture. Some say this mushroom has a faint oyster-like or seafood flavor, to match its likeness in shape to oysters. They range in color from a soft beige-brown to gray.

Chanterelles: Vase-shaped mushroom ranges in color from bright yellow to orange. It adds a nutty, delicate flavor and texture to salads, sauces and risottos. Add late in the cooking process to avoid toughening. Chanterelles are expensive when fresh and are also available dried or canned.

Crimini: Offers a firm texture and bold mushroom flavor. They are a great substitute for button mushrooms because of their full-bodied flavor.

Portabella: Largest of the commercially available mushrooms with a tan/brown cap, it's the mature version of the crimini. The portabella's long growing cycle gives a deep, meat-like flavor and substantial texture. They are good whole, sliced, grilled, baked, stir-fried and deep-fried. Be sure to trim off the dry, fibrous portion of the stem.

Lion's Maine: Mild flavor with a nice crabmeat-like texture. Because it tends to be a tough and watery mushroom, it needs longer periods of heat to cook off the moisture and to make it soft and chewy. Garrone family tips: For the best flavor, heat a little oil in a pan over medium-high or high heat. Add mushrooms, cover and cook until the ends are browned. Don't bother adding spices and butter until you're closer to the end of the cooking time. These mushrooms give off a lot of water at first, so the seasonings would become diluted.

Bear's Head: These beautiful, mild-flavored mushrooms are best sautéed or gently boiled.

Enoki: With their long stems and tiny, snow-white caps, these mushrooms are joined at the base and resemble bean sprouts. They offer a light and mild, almost fruity, flavor with a crisp texture. Before using, cut away from the communal base. Use in sandwiches, salads and as garnishes. If you use them in a cooked dish, add at the last possible moment as heat toughens enoki. Also available canned.

Porcini: Resembles the traditional fairytale toadstool. Weighs from a couple of ounces to a pound each, with caps from 1 to 10 inches in diameter. This pricey mushroom has a smooth, meaty texture with a pungent flavor. Pale brown in color with many general cooking uses. Also available dried.

While mushrooms are versatile in the kitchen, the Garrones note that unless you are well-educated in all types of mushrooms, particularly in identification of poisonous ones, it is wise to purchase your mushrooms from a reputable grower or grocer rather than hunting them yourself. Not all mushrooms are edible.

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@californiacountry.org.


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