Saturday, July 28, 2007

Farm Tour: Growing Mushrooms

I went on a CUESA-organized farm tour last Sunday to Monterey County, about 2 hours south of San Francisco. Our first stop was Far West Fungi in Moss Landing, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Moss Landing area is close to Salinas, the lettuce bowl of America, and is a mix of moderately-sized industrial farmland--monocultures stretching across wide swaths of land; strawberries here, brussels sprouts there, lettuce over there--and smaller operations like Far West Fungi and our second stop, Yrena farm (which I will write about another week).

Far West Fungi sells their mushrooms at several farmers markets in the San Francisco area and has a shop in the San Francisco Ferry Building marketplace.

Upon disembarking from the bus, "farm" was not the first thought that popped into my head. "Abandoned military base" or "the set of a grade-B horror movie" ("Hey everybody! Let's all go play spin the bottle in that creaky building with the red splotches on the door!") seemed like better descriptions. But the facility does what it needs to do--provide temperature and humidity control--as the high quality of the Far West's product illustrates.

Our tour guides were John and Toby Garrone, the current owners of the company. Although John has a long history in the food business, he got into mushrooms almost by accident. While working as a police dispatcher in San Francisco in the 1980s, John met someone who was starting a mushroom farm in southeast San Francisco, near the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.


Making mushrooms

Growing mushrooms is a multi-step process, with plenty of waiting between some of the steps. I'll go through the process, as explained to us on the tour, most likely missing some details here and there.


1) Preparing the growing medium
One of the most important raw materials for mushroom cultivation is a growing medium. Far West Fungi is certified organic, so they have strict requirements for their material. They are fortunate to have an agreement with a nearby cabinet and door maker who supplies red oak sawdust (in huge quantities, as the photo to the left illustrates). After arrival on site, the dust ages for 12 weeks to make a suitable bed for the mushroom culture (something happens as it ages to make it "right"). The final growing medium is a mixture of the aged saw dust, oyster shells (or another source of calcium) and rice bran. On a normal day, the company's workers fill about 3000 gallon-sized plastic bags per day.

After filling a bag with the growing medium, it is placed on a cart, which is then rolled over to the sterilization area.

2) Sterilizing
This step, and the next one, is where growing mushrooms looks more like a science experiment than farming.

The cart from step 1 is rolled into a large autoclave that has a door on each side (photo right). After a period of heating and cooling, the cart is wheeled though the door on the other side to the "clean room."

3) Starting the culture
The fungal culture is grown on a petri dish in the clean room. When the culture is mature, it is divided among ten 2-liter-sized flasks that are filled with the growing medium. These flasks remain in the clean room while the mycellium (the "roots" of the fungus) grows to fill the flask. Next, the flask's contents are divided among one hundredd bags filled with growing medium. When the bag contents are mature, the contents of each bag are split between ten bags. Thus, one petri dish ends up supplying life to 10,000 bags.


4) Incubating
The bags go through two stages of incubation, each about 30 days long (shiitake, however, need 60 days of secondary incubation). During these two periods, the mycellium digests the growing medium and fills all available space, turning the color of the bag contents turn from a deep brown to nearly pure white.


The initial incubation room

5) Growing
After incubation, the bags are moved to the growing rooms. The wood-digesting mushrooms grown by Far West Fungi need light, so a few fluorescent lamps are always turned on. They also need moisture, resulting in periodic blasts of water mist.At this stage, the bags are finally opened up--either with one end sliced open or with a small plastic collar installed around a hole in the bag (the collar directs the growth of the mushrooms into a cluster that is more easily harvested and more attractive).

6) Harvesting
Once a day, harvesters walk though the growing rooms to cut off bunches that are ready for sale. The mycellium in each bag goes through one "fruiting" before it runs out of growing power.

7) Cleaning up
Once the harvest is complete, the growers are left with a plastic bag filled with mycellium, the remnants of oyster shells, rice bran and sawdust. This material is sent to a nearby compost company to be converted to fertilizer (which is especially good for orchards, according to John Garrone).


Oyster mushrooms in a growing room



A selection of mushrooms: top row, maitake and yellow oyster; middle row, tree oyster and scarlet oyster; bottom row, lion's mane (a.k.a. bear's head) and shiitake.


A "field" of yellow oyster mushrooms


A few final notes

One of the things I realized during the tour is that Far West Fungi's facilities don't need to be in such a rural area. I noticed few, if any, unpleasant odors (the shiitake growing room had a rather pleasant aroma). It was hard to judge how much noise the facility makes, however, because the sterilization machine was not running (it's powered by a steam boiler, which probably makes all kinds of hissing noises). Therefore, it is conceivable that a parking garage, or office building, or even a grocery store could be built with a mushroom-growing facility underneath. Has such siting been attempted anywhere?


Another description of the tour

Jen Maiser (Life Begins at 30) was also on the tour and wrote about her experiences (with much better photos) at Bay Area Bites.



View of the Pacific Ocean from Far West Fungi

(Cross posted at Ethicurean)




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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Introducing the depluminator!

[Updated below]
The edge of my driveway is graced with a plum tree that bursts forth with pinkish-white flowers in the spring and a bounty of fruit in the summer. The fruit is weak in flavor with thick skin and a huge pit. But it can make great jam.

The plum tree is tall and I only have standard size ladders, and thus many plums are out of reach, destined to drop down onto the driveway, where they will deteriorate (or be squashed underfoot).

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. So last Sunday I got into an inventing mode, scrounged around in the basement, and created......[drum roll] [a frenzy of spotlights on a velvet curtain] [whoosh! the curtain drops]......the depluminator.

Looking at the picture below, one could argue that "inventing" is a probably too grand of a word for the depluminator. "Kludged" might be a better description because the device made from a rake, a box with a hole in the bottom, and a bungee cord (the red band below the box).

Operation of the depluminator is simple, but requires some dexterity: you find a bough that is loaded with fruit, position the rake above the fruit, then pull down, all the while keeping the box below the probably trajectory of the falling plums. The rake strips the plums from the branch; the box catches many--but certainly not all--of them. Those with soft heads or expensive hairdos might want to wear a helmet during this procedure...

With the depluminator and a ladder, I collected a few pounds of plums from my tree that were otherwise unreachable. They are currently sitting in my refrigerator, waiting for next weekend's jam adventure.

Update
In a comment, Anita jokes that I should patent the device and work on marketing it. Just for the heck of it, I did a quick patent search and found that I'm over 100 years too late. U.S. Patent 425,299, "Berry-Picker", by Charles H. Carpenter and Isaac Briggs, issued on April 8, 1890, shows a fairly similar device:




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Sunday, July 15, 2007

A reptilian visitor to my worm box

This little critter is in my worm box, probably enjoying the safety, the dark, the moisture, and the endless buffet of bugs and other goodies. Anyone know what it is? Or even which reference took I should consult?

It's about ten centimeters from nose to tail, a bit grayer than this photo indicates (the flash was necessary since the box is under a deck, made of black plastic, and its floor is covered with worm "castings").

I have seen similar reptiles in my worm box in past years, but this is the first time I took a photo.

Salamander? Skink? Newt?





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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bleg: How to use some of my kitchen experiments gone awry?

Some of my recent kitchen experiments have gone awry, leaving me with shelf-stable (or freezer-stable) products that I don't want to throw away. The experiments in question are these three:

  • Rice-spice bread - This loaf was part of my quest to increase the quantity of farmers market products in my home-baked bread (brown rice, in this experiment). The fateful loaf was a recipe from Narsai David in Beth Hensperger's "Baking Bread: Old and New Traditions," with a dough that contains cooked brown rice, cumin seeds and fennel seeds. The flavor was quite interesting, but the dough had far too much moisture for normal use. In the photo above, the bread is wrapped in plastic in the background.
  • Overcooked apricot jam - My first attempt at making apricot jam--and only my second solo attempt at making any kind of jam--didn't turn out so well. After undercooking my first batch of jam (strawberry), I overcompensated and cooked this one too long, resulting in a nearly unspreadable, almost membrillo-like paste.
  • Rock-hard "soft" caramel - I am trying to find the right recipe (and right skills) to make a soft caramel like those made by Fran's of Seattle to be coated in dark chocolate and topped with fleur de sel. My first attempt, using the recipe in Recchiuti and Gage's Chocolate Obsession is too hard to eat. (if you have a recipe for the kind of caramel I'm talking about, please let me know)

I know that there is some good in these flawed experiments. I have some ideas, but before I reveal them, I'd like to hear your ideas about how I can use these mistakes. Please leave them in the comments. If the idea is so off-the-wall that you don't want it connected with your name, e-mail it to me (my address I on my profile page) and I'll include it in an update without revealing the identity of the submitter.

Thanks in advance for your help!




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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Occupied by Oregano

[Updated below with variety of Rancho Gordo's Mexican oregano]
[Updated again, cleaning up some typos, 3/26/11]

This post is for Steve of Rancho Gordo, grower and seller of incredibly delicious heritage beans. He also sells Mexican oregano (update: the variety is Lippia graveolens), and when I met him a few weeks ago, we talked for a minute about the mysteries of Mexican oregano. Is it really oregano? Or just a misnomer by the Spanish? Neither of us knew, so I decided to spend some time in the library investigating the subject. I found a few answers, but left more confused than I arrived.

True Oregano
The herbs known as oregano are called marjoram in some countries. And for a good reason, both "oregano" and "marjoram" are in the Origanum genus, which contains 36 species. Three of the references that I consulted (numbers 4 - 6 in the reference list below) say that the genus name is derived from the Greek oros ganos, "joy of the mountains." One book (Ref. 3), however, claims that name derives from the Greek ori ganon ("bitter herb") a name supposedly used by Hippocrates in classical Greece. Perhaps both are right--the mountains of classical Greece were covered with bitter herbs that gave those who walked among them or ate them great joy. (do any Mental Masala readers know Greek?)

According to the USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network, many of the Origanum species are native to the "Old World." For example, O. vulgare is native to a wide span of Europe, Africa and Asia; O. syriacum is native to Western Asia.

Mexican Oregano
The herb known as "Mexican oregano" is from the New World. It is not in the same family as Old World oregano and to confuse things, there are multiple herbs sold under the name, like Poliomentha longiflora, Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia, and Lippia graveolens. Nancy Zaslavsky (Ref. 1) writes that "True Mexican oregano is sold by Indian women in weekly markets (there are about a dozen types of wild oregano in Mexico). What is sold in jars in supermercados is actually marjoram."

If Mexican oregano is not in the Origanum genus, why is it called oregano? I don't know--none of the books I consulted gave a reason. The explanation is probably simple: the Spanish found herbs in the New World that looked and tasted like the oregano/marjoram they knew back home, and so they called them oregano.

Oregano as a Flavor, Not an Herb
I'm not alone in being befuddled by oregano. The The Oxford Companion to Food devotes almost one-half of a page to oregano, with background on the plant and a list of species called oregano around the world. The Companion quotes from a scholar who says that we should think about oregano as a flavor instead of a plant: "Most of these [oregano] plants bear a unifying chemical signature: carvacrol and, to a lesser extent, thymol."

That's fine with me, but I'll still be careful about which dishes I season with each type of oregano. There is something about the flavor profile of Mexican oregano that makes it work in chile sauces, and something about Old World oregano that fits with tomatoes and pasta.


References consulted
[1] A Cook's Tour of Mexico, by Nancy Zaslavsky
[2] Herbs and Spices, by Jill Norman
[3] Encyclopedia of Herbs, by Deni Brown
[4] Encylopedia of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings, by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz (also wrote seveal Mexican cookbooks)
[5] Herbs by Lesley Bremness
[6] The on-line Food Lover's Companion
[7] The Oxford Companion to Food
[8] Several books by Diana Kennedy (a modern Mexican cooking legend)


Image credit: Java finch on an oregano branch from Eye of Einstein's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.




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