Whether you are choosing everyday button mushrooms for your pizza, exotic oyster mushrooms for a gourmet salad, or shiitakes for a special sauce, you can buy ones grown just down the road in North County.
Exotic and staple varieties of mushrooms are quitely being cultivated from Bonsall to Escondido. White button mushrooms are raised in growing beds stacked in dark, warehouse-like buildings; oyster mushrooms are grown on trees made of straw.
While the white button mushroom has long been a fixture on supermarket shelves, several exotic varieties--such as shiitake, enoki and oyster mushrooms--are now attracting attention. North County growers are finding a market for both types in local stores and across the country.
The new-found popularity of the exotic mushroom varieties is due in part to the Golden Gourmet Co. in San Marcos.
The company, in business for just over three years, has become the largest supplier of specialty mushrooms, as well as the largest year-round producer of oyster mushrooms in the United States. Shiitakes are also being tested for large-scale commercial production.
In addition to supplying markets and specialty stores in North County, Golden Gourmet ships more than a million pounds of its exotic mushrooms a year to supermarket chains nationwide.
The crop is grown inside spotless labs as warm and humid as a tropical forest. Row upon row of "trees" made of sanitized and steam-cleaned straw mixed with millet grain serve as the growing medium for the oyster mushrooms.
Two or three weeks after the grain is injected with the mycelium, or mushroom spores, mushrooms the size of a pinhead begin to sprout.
Betty Ivanovitch is director of the spawn laboratory, research and quality control for Golden Gourmet. She has fond memories of mushroom hunts while growing up in Yugoslavia. "Mushrooms are very nutritious," she said. "They are part of the daily diet in many European countries. I would love to see them become as popular among American consumers."
Mushrooms, she said, are high in protein and contain all the essential vitamins and minerals. They are also low in calories. "Each mushroom has its own identity," she said. The oyster mushroom, which she says tastes a little like bacon when sauteed on medium high heat for a few minutes, remains one of her favorites.
What: Exotic mushrooms.
Who: Golden Gourmet Mushrooms.
Where: P.O. Box 369, San Marcos
Sales: Available at most major supermarkets. Oyster mushrooms about $2 for 4 ounces; shiitake mushrooms about $4 for 3 1/2 ounces; enoki mushrooms about $1.80 for 3 1/2 ounces.
One of the most common mushroom varieties is the button, or "agaricus bisporus," actually a hybrid that was bred for its familiar white color. Originally brown, the "white button" was developed to appeal to consumers, according to Jeanne Marlowe, microbiologist at the San Luis Rey Mushroom Farm in Bonsall.
In a year, the farm produces a million pounds of mushrooms.
While Jeanne Marlowe supervises the early stages of production, her husband, Alan, manages the later stages of the 23-week mushroom growing cycle.
Marlowe grows her own mushroom spawn rather than buying it from a commercial lab. "We make our own spawn because we can better control the quality and also because it is much more advantageous commercially," she said.
The spawn is cultivated in test tubes filled with "agar," a gelatin-like medium. It takes two weeks to determine if the culture is stable. Production is chancy at best: There is no way to predict size or quantity of the eventual crop except by careful monitoring of the spawn.
If it passes muster, it is transferred from test tubes to gallon jars filled with millet or sorghum to continue developing. Eventually, the spawn is mixed with sterilized compost and placed in growing beds.
The farm uses nearby raw materials to create its compost: grape pomace (a grape residue) from neighboring vineyards, chicken waste from a chicken farm, cottonseed meal and straw from the San Luis Rey Downs stables. (At the end of each mushroom harvest, the compost is recycled to area gardeners who line up to fill their trucks at $6 a cubic yard.)
The tiny mushrooms, called "pins," must have just the right amount of fresh air to allow them to pierce the compost, which has been mixed and pasteurized to destroy any detrimental organisms.
During the final growth, clusters of mushrooms develop in the moist darkness, transforming the beds into a gray, lunar-looking landscape. The mushrooms are then harvested according to size.
What: White button mushrooms.
Who: San Luis Rey Mushroom Farm.
Where: 1923 Dentro de Loma, Bonsall.
Sales: Available in local supermarkets and at the farm, where the top grade is $1.15 to $1.45 per pound; No. 2 grade, $1 a pound.
White button mushrooms are also the specialty at Mountain Meadow Mushroom farm in Escondido. Bob Crouch, who left a career in aerospace to become a mushroom grower, took over an established farm six years ago.
"I got tired of the rat race," he says, "so I bought a mushroom farm. Besides, this is much more interesting."
Mountain Meadow produces upwards of 5,000 pounds a day out of 17 growing rooms, for distribution to local restaurants and markets.
Mushroom sizes range from the classic button to the extra large variety, ideal for stuffing.
Mountain Meadow welcomes visitors and sells directly to the public. The farm is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
What: White button mushrooms.
Who: Mountain Meadow Mushrooms Inc.
Where: 26948 North Broadway, Escondido.
Sales: Available in local supermarkets and at the farm. Small button mushrooms, $1.25 per pound; medium $1.50 per pound; large $2 per pound; jumbo $2.50 per pound.