Beyond Buttons: A Guide to Specialty Mushrooms

Brie Mazurek, Foodwise Staff
January 18, 2019

Whether for health, ethical, or environmental reasons, Americans are eating less meat, which is good news for John Garrone of Far West Fungi.

“We’re getting away from the large meat portions, and moving toward smaller meat portions with larger veggie portions, or elimination of meat altogether. Mushrooms are an easy transition,” John says. “Plus, you can grow mushrooms on waste materials, such as sawdust or straw.”

Myco-curious eaters are venturing beyond the common cremini to discover the range of flavors, textures, and nutritional benefits that mushrooms offer.

From Stone Fruit to ’Shrooms

John’s parents grew cherries, apricots, and pears in Mountain View, and he remembers going to Alemany Farmers Market as a child, when it was the city’s only farmers market. He started farming mushrooms in the 1980s with Hazel Dell Mushrooms, one of the original Ferry Plaza vendors, and later spun off into Far West Fungi.

Based in Moss Landing, where the foggy coastal climate offers ideal conditions, Far West became a pioneer of the specialty mushroom market in the Bay Area. “Fifteen years ago a lot of the mushroom farms were starting to close,” says John. “Our suppliers were shutting down, and a lot of it had to do with competition from Asia.” The Garrones found their niche cultivating certified organic mushrooms for the local market.

Today, John and his wife, Toby, and their four sons, Kyle, Ian, Loren, and Sean, are all part of the business. As their retail business has grown (including a brick-and-mortar shop inside the Ferry Building Marketplace), farmers markets continue to be a cornerstone of Far West’s success.

John says the markets allow him to test out new products, share culinary tips, and get face-to-face feedback from customers. “It’s a wonderful way to introduce customers to a strange product,” says John, who can be found at the Ferry Plaza on most Saturdays. He also enjoys hearing novel recipe suggestions. “I just had a customer tell me she makes a pulled pork type dish using oyster mushrooms,” he says.

Fruits of the Fungi

Mushrooms are not vegetables. They are closer to animals than plants, and belong to their own distinct kingdom, Fungi. As a fruit is to a tree, mushrooms are the spore-bearing fruiting bodies that allow fungi to reproduce.

Fungi often live on decaying organic matter, such as on tree stumps or in grassy meadows. At Far West Fungi, the Garrones raise mushrooms in sawdust from a local cabinet maker, as well as wheat and rice bran and other materials. (You can learn more about the process here.) “As I travel and see where mushroom farms are, they’re always near a source of waste material, be it sawdust or straw,” says John.

All of the species Far West cultivates grow on trees, which is why they thrive in sawdust. Although many tree mushrooms are considered medicinal, John generally focuses on the culinary virtues of his various mushrooms. “I’m a farmer, so when people start asking me for medical advice, I don’t want to feel like a snake oil peddler,” he jests.

Beyond Buttons: Meet Your Mushrooms

Ready to go ’shrooming at the farmers market? Here are the fresh varieties you’ll find at Far West Fungi’s stand on Saturdays. All are grown locally by Far West, unless otherwise noted. At their brick-and-mortar shop inside the Ferry Building Marketplace, they also sell foraged mushrooms such as truffles, Morels, Porcinis, and Chanterelles, as well as dried medicinal mushrooms, tinctures, and other products.

Mushrooms are best eaten cooked rather than raw, and should be refrigerated and used within a day or two.

King Trumpet: A beige tree mushroom with a brown cap and a thick stalk, the King Trumpet has a firm, dense texture and a buttery sweet flavor. In Asia, you’ll find them sold up to two pounds in size, but Far West keeps them petite. Cut paper-thin and sauté in butter; they cook up like a chow fun noodle.

Lion’s Mane (Bear’s Head): According to John, this moist, fibrous pompom of a mushroom has a crabmeat-like texture when fried; when steamed, it’s scallop-like, and if put in soup, it resembles a dumpling. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s believed to support brain health and digestion.

Maitake (Hen-of-the-Woods): In the wild, this feathery, fan-like polypore (bracket fungus) grows on the base of tree trunks. It has a firm, crunchy texture and flavor reminiscent of chicken. According to TCM, maitakes support the immune system.

Nameko: Bright amber-orange, Namekos have a silky texture, with a shiny, sticky cap. In Japan, they’re a popular ingredient in miso soup, and the gelatinous coating helps to serve as a thickener to the broth, lending an earthy flavor.

Pioppini: These small, button-like gourmet mushrooms have chocolate-colored caps, a long, crunchy stem, and a nutty flavor. They pair well with meats, and in Italian cooking they are used in pasta dishes.

Reishi: Used in tea, this medicinal mushroom has a bitter flavor and woody texture. Reishi mushrooms are believed to promote T cell production in blood. Not pictured.

Shiitake: Grown on red oak sawdust at Far West, this popular mushroom has a woodsy, meaty flavor and firm texture that remains chewy when sautéed, grilled, or used in soups. Garlic, butter, and sherry or white wine sets their flavor off. They’re also believed to boost immunity.

Shimeji: Native to East Asia, these little white mushrooms have a light nutty flavor and slightly crunchy texture. Sauté with butter, use in stir-fries, or stir into soups or stews.

Tree oysters: Far West Fungi grows five types of these velvety, clustered mushrooms, from white and gray varieties to pink and yellow tropical strains. They each have their own flavor nuances, but share a delicate, seafood-like quality that works well in soups. One variety that Far West grows is indigenous to San Francisco’s Presidio and was used in 2007 to help clean up an oil spill.

Wood Ear: One of the newer offerings at Far West, these rubbery brown mushrooms are aptly named for their auricular appearance. Light in flavor, they’re best chopped and simmered in soups, or combined into meat or vegetable stir-fries.

Cremini and Portobello: Under a special agreement with farmers market management, Far West Fungi also sells white, brown, and Portobello mushrooms that are grown by Global Mushrooms in Gilroy. A grassland species, the common white or brown button mushroom is versatile and mild in flavor. Portobello is the mature version. Large, dense, and flavorful, it makes a hearty meat-free burger or steak. Not pictured.

Find Far West Fungi at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in the back plaza on Saturdays. And new on Saturdays in the south driveway, they also launched a new concept, Far West Fungi Kitchen, which serves mushroom-centric soups, sandwiches, teas. 

This article is an update of a previously published article.

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