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Mushroom Industry Mushrooming
by Barbara Ann Rosenberg

Mushrooms I remember (vividly) when our older son hated mushrooms - - and now he can't get enough of them, raw (marinated and in salads) and cooked (in everything except dessert). It seems that insofar as food trends go, our son, Buzz, is a keen barometer of the nation's eating habits - - in pretty much the same way as it was once said about the state of Maine in a political context (here translated into food terms) "As Buzz goes, so goes the nation"! Now it seems that people are gobbling up mushrooms in record numbers. More and more restaurants are featuring a wide variety of this multi-formed fungus in grilled dishes, in stews and in gloriously innovative salads.

Fortunately, we live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which produces more mushrooms than any other state in America, so both direct consumers and restaurants have access to a ready supply The area in and around Kennett Square is the seat of the mushroom growing industry, producing several "exotic" species in addition to common "white" mushrooms, or as they are properly called agaricus. Further, Pennsylvania State University is a major player in both basic and applied research on mushroom production and recently hosted an international conference on Mushroom Biology and Mushroom Products.

About thirty years ago the area around Kennett Square, all along Route 1, headed southwest from Philadelphia was peppered with little stands advertising "Mushrooms for Sale". Each of the little stands was an outlet for the individual farmers who were struggling to make a living growing their mushrooms in rather primitive sheds by relatively unscientific methods. In recent years, however, many of these small farmers have been bought up by major growers like Phillips Mushroom Farms, the largest grower of specialty mushrooms, which applies state of the art practices to the several varieties of mushrooms they grow in the immaculate, sophisticated temperature and humidity-controlled low buildings throughout that section of the beautiful, rural Chester County landscape.

When the International Association of Culinary Professionals came to Philadelphia this year, many of the people in attendance had an understandable thirst for knowledge about what this mushroom industry is all about. And what better place to glean this knowledge than, in addition to a trip to Kennett Square to see the mushrooms in their native habitat, an intensive seminar was arranged, featuring Jack Czarnecki, owner of Joe's in Reading, a restaurant that has, over many years, developed a reputation as the place to taste wild mushrooms; Jim Angelluci, the general manager of Phillips and, appropriately enough, Philippe Chin, chef/owner of Chantarelles, the restaurant named for a delicious wild mushroom .

Room 202 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center wasn't just the location of the IACP seminar titled "From Spores to Sautes", however -- it was a total environment! Grouped together in two beautiful displays were several varieties of those fungi "on the hoof", so to speak...appearing as if they were growing in situ. There were the normal white ones, of course, And brown mushrooms, shitake, portabellas, yellow oyster, enoki, crimini and a really strange looking speciman called maitake , or more commonly, "hen of the woods". Jim Angelucci, General Manager of Phillips (the largest grower of specialty mushrooms) in Kennett Square, or perhaps the country as a whole) addressed the room crammed full of eager, curious attendees.

Wilhelm Meya, president of Franklin Mushroom Farms, Franklin, CT, was also on hand to provide information on various species of specialty mushrooms. Angelucci advised the group, which included several people from the restaurant community, that there were 85 mushroom growers in the Kennett Square area. And those growers produced somewhere in the vicinity of 75 million pounds of cultivated common and specialty mushrooms a year! Pennsylvania is the largest grower of cultivated mushrooms, with California as second. He explained that mushrooms were the fruiting body of a fungus that is grown in a specially prepared mix of agricultural products including poultry manure that has been heated to 140 degrees to pasteurize it. "The spawning process is ecologically sound" he noted, "since the growing mushrooms give off oxygen and intake carbon dioxide". He explained that mushrooms are grown in "flushes" and that the first "flush" of five to seven days, produced the most premium product, but was followed by two additional viable flushes still useful for the market.

Mushroom expert Jack Czarnecki, author of "A Cook's Book of Mushrooms" and "Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery" was the featured presenter, and destroyed such myths as "mushrooms are at their best when the caps are tightly closed". He advised the group that mushrooms have considerably more taste when the caps are open... and, following that principle, went on to inform them that portabellas are large sized criminis with their caps wide open!

Czarnecki clarified the difference between what people commonly think of as "wild" mushrooms and cultivated "exotic" mushrooms: with shitaki and portabellas falling into the latter category. Morels and chantarelles are "wild", but, he noted that there has been some progress in cultivating morels, an elusive expensive triangular variety in Alabama, but that the cultivated variety is not as flavorful as the ones that grow in the wild.

In response to some questions from the people in attendance, Czarnecki advised the group that marinating mushrooms destroys their flavor...and the ensuing result tastes only like the marinade. Further, for the benefit of people who want to pick their own mushrooms, he noted that the Asian straw mushroom closely resembles the extremely poisonous "angel of death" that caused so many Asian Americans to sicken and die a few years ago. He further noted that research in Asia now suggests that oyster mushrooms (in Asia) have a strong anti-tumor effect and that the mild mytaki mushrooms seem to shore up the immune system. He mentioned, further, that kambucha (the "original blob") has strong anti-biotic properties when drunk as a tea...but that it subject to potentially dangerous contamination.

In addition to the mushrooms cultivated in Pennsylvania, Czarnecki stated that 2500 to 7 million pounds of wild mushrooms are picked in the Pacific Northwest to be shipped throughout the country (and abroad).

While Czarnecki was speaking, Philippe Chin, owner chef of Chanterelles, was working in the background to prepare some of his acclaimed mushroom dishes for the group to taste. But, in keeping with the maxim "anything that can go wrong...will", it seems that Chin had the wrong blade for the Cuisinart...and none of the ovens was working! Out came Chin's trusty French cook's knife...and he started chopping the mushrooms by hand to make duxelles, a flavored puree of mushrooms with many culinary uses.

"I'm using regular white mushrooms," Chin said, "they really are good if used properly." He noted that in order to produce one cup of intense duxelles, he starts with ten cups of mushrooms and reduces them with shallots and garlic. The missing blade for the Cuisinart turned up. Chin inserted it - - and found that the Cuisinart, itself, was not working! But the unflappable Chin, merely grinned his customary pleasant smile and went on chopping! The ovens were another matter...but a technician arrived and got those working, too.

Chin persevered and went to advise the group that the pastry for the duxelles had to be "very thin, very fine". and when the duxelles was finished cooking, it was necessary to wrap the product in a linen towel to press out the juice. "But don't press too hard," he warned, "or it will explode!

Chin had other words of advice for the people in the audience: "Use real mayonnaise...because you need a lot of that 'low fat stuff' and only a little of the 'real thing'". He also noted that he used heavy cream with the mushrooms, "because, as you may have noticed, this is not low fat cooking."

The results of Chin's efforts (prepared previously and finished during the demonstration) were passed for people to admire and taste. The result was a resounding, "great"!

Mark Chew, whose mushroom-themed Italian restaurant is in Hockessin, Delaware, is always experimenting with new breeds of "specialty" mushrooms such as the strange-looking, flavorful maitake (hen of the woods), long available wild in northeastern Japan. and now being grown for its medicinal as well as culinary properties. Mark Chew grins as he says, " Maitakes are really great with seafood. With respect to their reported beneficial properties...well, maybe that's why I have four kids!"

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