Taming Wild Mushrooms Western Suppliers Are Domesticating Exotic Varieties for a Growing Market

Russ Parsons is food editor for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

BRINGING HOME mushrooms used to mean getting up in the dark and tramping for miles through damp, quiet woods looking for the one perfect green grove where they grew. Their earthy smells and flavors, rich, dark and slightly musty, were known only by the privileged few who could find them.

Nowadays, though, mycophiles need only visit the grocery store. Exotic mushrooms, once found only in the wild, are now grown commercially and are as common as fresh herbs and baby vegetables.

Two years ago, the only mushroom available in Ralphs stores was the white-button variety (known as Agaricus campestris ). This year, the chain expects to sell 7,000 to 10,000 pounds of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Ralphs also stocks oyster, enoki, crimini and hon shimeji mushrooms and chanterelles.

Except for the chanterelles, no longer are these mushrooms wild but rather wild varieties now cultivated commercially. Growing them is a complicated procedure that depends on temperature, moisture, soil type, habitat and spore management. The right combination of factors is so elusive that, after centuries of trying, the most prized wild mushroom, boletus edulis (called cepes in France and porcini in Italian), has not been successfully grown.

Most cultivated mushrooms come from one supplier, Russ Hauptmann of Watsonville's Monterey Mushrooms. The country's largest grower of mushrooms, Monterey concentrates on Agaricus --the familiar button type--but two years ago began distributing oyster, shiitake and enoki varieties from commercial growers.

Jim Hammond, of Hazel Dell, is one of Hauptmann's suppliers. He farms enoki, oyster and shiitake mushrooms in two Watsonville warehouses. The mushrooms are cultivated in plastic bags filled with sawdust or straw mixed with rice or wheat bran. The bags are inoculated with the fungus mycellium--a feathery kind of mushroom "root"--then left to colonize for 5 to 15 weeks. Once the crop begins to grow, the plastic is removed to let the mushrooms mature.

Truly wild mushrooms come from operators such as Matt Briggs of Cascade Mushrooms in Portland, Ore. Briggs contracts with pickers all over the country who scour their local woods for fungi. Briggs buys and sells chanterelles, morels, boletes, American truffles and black trumpets, as well as more exotic mushrooms such as cauliflower, hedgehog, bear's head, lobster, coral and blewits .

Commercially available mushrooms receive mixed reviews from chefs. Mark Peel of Campanile likes oyster mushrooms. He sautes them over very high heat and serves them over salmon with summer vegetables. Peel cautions not to serve oyster mushrooms raw because they're "bitter and tannic."

Patina's Joachim Splichal roasts oyster mushrooms with garlic and butter to use, with roasted potatoes, as a garnish for chicken salad. One of his favorite cultivated mushrooms is the regular white Agaricus, which he roasts with garlic and parsley, purees and pipes into mini-turnips. But he is downright vehement about enoki mushrooms: "They have nothing to do with flavor; they're just window dressing." He also thinks shiitakes are overpriced.

On the other hand, Leonard Schwartz of 72 Market Street and the new Maple Drive considers the shiitake the "best all-purpose mushroom in the world. It delivers the most flavor for the money spent." He uses shiitakes in this wintry salad of scallops with apples and almonds. "Scallops," he says, "have an inherent sweetness that complements the woodsy, smoky quality of the shiitakes."

WARM SCALLOP SALAD WITH APPLES, ALMONDS AND SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS 2 ounces Vinaigrette (see below) 3 cups mixed lettuces 1/2 teaspoon minced chives 6 ounces bay scallops or sea scallops 2/3 cup shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced 2 tablespoons apple, thinly sliced 1 tablespoon toasted sliced almonds 8 snow peas

Make vinaigrette.

Heat saute pan very hot.

Mix lettuces with ounce of vinaigrette and pinch of chives. Place in center of plate.

Saute scallops and mushrooms half-minute and place in small bowl. Add apples, almonds, another pinch of chives and snow peas to bowl, toss with remainder of vinaigrette and place on top of greens.

Makes 2 servings.

Vinaigrette 1 ounce light olive oil 1 ounce peanut oil 1/2 ounce lemon juice 1 tablespoon soy sauce

Mix together in large bowl and whisk well before use.

Food stylist: Sandra Cook

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