S1E2: The Boletale
Once upon a time, in a land far, far way, there was a mushroom farm in a region known as King's Landing -I mean, Moss Landing. Largely kept secret from most of the world, the farm is kept secret, tucked away from the public. BUT! Twice a year, the farm is open for all. Twice a year, people flock from all around the world to feast their eyes and mouths with mushrooms. They come to experience a tour, a potluck, and for the intrepid, the opportunity to take home bounty, mushroom growing kits! From all walks of life, people enjoy these two times of the year for an experience at an organic mushroom farm.
On Halloween weekend, the torrential downpour keeps many at home, but the intrepid take to their cars and drive. Through the strong winds and extremely low visibility, high beams are a necessity along with extra caution, in case some gets tossed in the wind. The love of mushrooms beckons and those who answer the call trek on to the farm. Through winding roads and rural residential lands, you can only hope to combat the journey with the heat turned on and Pandora set to some swing jazz music play station. The final destination - NO- the haven for fungal fanatics is near!
Remember to wear your rain gear complete with rubber boots and bring lots of bags to hold the mushroom kits, the mighty crown jewels. Who knows if you end up with lion's mane or King Boletus also known as porcini. AS your drive south nears King's - err, Moss Landing, the rain dissipates and the clouds part making way for a faint sunshine. You turn up the dirt road and find yourself behind a line of cars waiting. Your heart beats like a drum. Is this anticipation or fear...nervousness? No, the worst part was over. There shouldn't be any fear nor dread nor nerves. Did you forget your rain boots? Please, you do not want to turn around just for some boots. Do pray they are in the trunk. Your memory does not fail you. You are sure, absolutely sure the boots are in the trunk. Perhaps, the tributary food offering for the pot luck is not good enough, then? What did you bring again? That's right; you brought bars with fruit pieces inside. There's ample fiber in the baked bars. *Knock, Knock* Quick, lower the volume! Lower the windows. Yes, this is the first time you are at the farm. Yes, you would be going to collect the loot of mushroom kits. You are allowed to pass as the volunteer directs you to the area where the rewards can be reaped. You pass the line of parked cars on both sides. You see the outhouse to your left and the masses around smoke! The BBQ of mushrooms waft over to you as you make a right and up toward the mounds. The mounds of mushroom blocks. The treasure trove of blocks stack high in front of you, for you to gaze upon its enormity. Park and rejoice. Look to the trunk and put on those boots! Bring out the tribute and walk to the masses. Your heart beats less loudly. The anticipation must be the cause. You look at the tribute and hope for the best. Breathe in and out. Moss Landing, surely, must be a place that is judgment-free. Your offering should be pleasing to some. You step into the crowd and place your offering on the table with a label of fruit bars or something of that sort.
Wow, your petty tribute fails to compare with the cornbread, salads, homebrews including ciders, cookies, lemon squares, mushroom quiche, and the BBQ mushrooms. Mmmmhmm. Let's hope this tribute stands up to its reputation. You hear a sudden cry from behind. You turn to see a man with a beard in a hat with a feather sticking out telling everyone to quiet down. As the silence trickles throughout the mob, the man with the hat begins to tell us of the start of the mushroom tours. As you gather around in smaller groups, you are introduced to two other folks, lively, lovely gentlemen who have helped make this farm what it is today. Of the three, you are led by the man with the hat. He leads you and fellow fungal fanatics to the mounds and regales everyone of the story of how mushrooms are grown and raised on this farm.
The life cycle of these mushrooms start with the substrate, the nutrients for the mushrooms. In this case, it's straw and some compost. This substrate will then be broken down by the mycelium. Mycelium is kind of like a tree's roots where the roots will absorb nutrients for the tree. Unlike the roots, the mycelium network made of hyphae, smaller filaments or strands, the mycelium is smaller in size and spreads further. This part of the fungi is usually underground, while the mushroom is the edible part and is above ground. Mycelium will release acids and enzymes that can break down all types of material for the nutrition and health of the entire fungus. That's wicked cool stuff what nature can do. The energy absorbed from the substrate will be used to grow the mushrooms, the fruiting body. In comparison, a mushroom is much like a fruit from a tree. The mushroom contains reproductive components like that of an apple or watermelon. Instead of a seed, the mushroom contains spores. Much like fruit, all mushrooms are edible. Some are edible only once.
You see the hills of decomposing material which will eventually turn into a food source for the fungi and in turn, the mushrooms of the fungi will become a food source for you. There is a rotation system as one hill of decomposed matter gets old enough for the mushroom growing blocks and gets moved to the preparation and sterilization rooms, the other hills are queued up and another pile of compost gets introduced. Making your way to the first building and away from the piles of natural waste, you see a lack of farm equipment. It stands to reason the showers have kept equipment tucked indoors. As you approach the interior of the first building, you see one giant piece of equipment, a compactor and a huge opening in the wall presumably for compost to fall into the compactor. You would be right to presume such as the man in the hat confirmed the compost needed to be consolidated into a block that can fit into the sterilization room. Not too far off is the sterilization room where a huge circular door guards the entrance. The only thing allowed into the vault would be the compost block and for good reason. The vault, which is also known as the autoclave, is a chamber that utilizes immense pressure and heat to kill off any microbes previously living on the compost substrate. That said, the large metal doors remain close and tightly sealed, waiting to awake for the next mushroom production. Away from the looming metal vault that has killed countless microbes, there stands a packaging and inoculation room where blocks are formed for the spawn of various species of mushrooms to inject and thrive. The man with the hat explains the reasons that the sterility of the mushroom blocks is important. He tells you the lack of competing microbes for the same food source allows for optimal growth of the fungi. Otherwise, the mushrooms will face a long fought war using chemical and biological tactics to subdue their foes and expand across the substrate block for total dominance and growth. You nod in acknowledgement as you see through the looking glass a glimpse of the sterile, bare packaging and inoculating room. It is as clean as clean can be like a doctor's office.
Just around the corner, you and your fellow companions walk to a humidity controlled room. The feeling of the tropics is upon you which strangely contrasts the weather of the cold damp farmland. You feel the warmth upon you as you crowd around the rows upon rows of shelves upon shelves of mushroom blocks held together in its sleeves with slash marks to allow mist from above to spray down like the occasional misting at the supermarket produce aisle except without the sound of thunder as a warning to customers. The hydration process is necessary, says the man with the hat. Mushrooms need water as do all living organisms. Moving forward from room to room, you see more and more mushrooms of various kinds: wood ear, yellow oyster, pearl oyster, king oyster, pink oyster, shiitake, and so on and so forth. Some grow in clusters. Some have one dominating fruiting body. Some grow far too heavy that the block falls from its high shelf onto the floor. Some have no growth. As you walk in a line to marvel at the countless rows of shelves, you are handed by the man in the hat a mushroom cluster, freshly picked from a block. He instructs you and others around to try a piece. It's the freshest you would ever get, a different flavor profile. You peel off one mushroom from the bunch and take a bite. The pearl oyster mushroom, uncooked, has a texture that has a bounce, a chew. The flavor is not so deep nor earthy. There is a hint of sweetness like the sweetness of seafood. You can see why the oyster mushrooms are called as such. There's a flavor that can resemble that of oysters. The experience is different, unique, and titillating.
The tour ends. You seem to have woken up from a slumber as you walk out of another humidity controlled room. The cold contrast quickly and sharply slaps you into the moment of chatter all around you. The smoke is billowing and the aromas of different foods flow around you. You're in line with at least 50 people ahead of you and 50 more behind you. The raw oyster mushrooms didn't seem to hold your appetite as you grumble. Luckily you hold a home brew cider to quench you, to warm you. There's a bit of quince and apple. The funky sourness is balanced well with some of the fruitiness. Before you know it, you have BBQ mushrooms on your plate with a whole assortment of other foods piled high.
As you gobble down on the delicious array in front of you, you go to your happy place. Perhaps, the chatter did dissipate, or perhaps, music is playing in the background. When finished, you notice the company of two merry men, a chef and a farmer from the Northern town of Healdsburg. They've driven far to escape their chores and rejoice the festivities down south. Laughing and cheering, the time was well spent at the table. Rounds of seconds and thirds were passed around until the crowd dwindles. As you part ways, you come back to the mission at hand, the purpose of your trip. The majestic and mystical blocks await you at the mounds.
Legend has it that these mushroom blocks that make up the mound had mushrooms growing in clusters and were once in one of the humidity rooms. As their days drew by in peace and harmony, microbes from close and afar wait for a time to strike down and wage a war for nutrients. After the first harvest of fruiting bodies, the blocks are prone for attack. The farmers have come to realize the business model of waiting for unpredictable growth is not reliable, especially with limited resources; the blocks are left to fend for themselves. Abandoned by the droves, the blocks combat the weather and competition. Most have fallen to molds. Others have died of old age. Some say, there are some contingents who lie dormant waiting for the day to relive their glory days, to respawn new fruiting bodies. Those are the ones with a fighting chance, the ones who have hope. That hope gives way to fearlessness if only given the chance. Most of the party do not believe in this tale. They leave after the feast. Others still are wary and at most, buy freshly picked mushrooms from the farm. For the brave remaining romantics, they move forward with purpose. They climb the mound, searching for through the piles of the decomposing blocks, hoping to find the survivors.
One man came from Salinas as a professor of biology. He wanted to show the potential of the blocks for his students in a lab class. One woman came for fun and wanted to give a try at revitalizing the blocks. A couple came for their first time. They were drawn in from the tales they have heard. A chef came to better improve the farm to table movement. You. You were called to participate in this journey. You would be the hero of this tale. You would bare witness the rare opportunity of a secondary or tertiary growth of mushroom blocks. You search and sift through the blocks. You assess and analyze the heft, the sight, the smell, and the texture. You hope your eye for potential growth gives way to a bounty. The blocks can't be too heavy or too light. There should be no green or blue mold. There should not be any awful odors. There shouldn't be any slime nor dryness. You collect your blocks, 25 in total. With the care and attention given to that of a newborn child, these blocks will receive that and maybe more. Everything is packed up and ready to go.
You were told the mounds consist primarily of oyster and shiitake blocks. For the lucky few, there were lion's mane. Rumor states that there was one individual who found a king bolete block. Most think it's inconceivable! It's a tall tale. For those who were successful on their adventure in growing more mushrooms, they return to tell their tales. For those who weren't, they still return to try again. As you leave Moss Landing, driving northward, you reset your countdown clock for the other biannual mushroom farm tour and excavation.
P.S. Chau Time is produced and edited by Brian Chau. Logo design was done by Charis Poon. Music was produced by Jadey Gonzalez. If you liked bits and pieces of this podcast and would like to support Chau Time, please visit my Patreon page. You may follow me on Instragram @this_is_chau_time. Feel free to tweet @ChauTimesfor your thoughts and inputs. Check out the rest of my website http://chau-time.com/ for more information. You may listen to Chau Time every week wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to subscribe and or write a review. Thank you.