Why is it that something you disliked so much as a kid, you can like so much as an adult? They say it’s because some things are an acquired taste. But then why did it take me about 15 years to like mushrooms and only 15 minutes to like beer, another supposed acquired taste?
A pepperoni, mushroom and green pepper pizza was the first time I didn’t screw up my face at mushrooms. But when I actually started getting excited about shrooms was when I was already about 25. My father-in-law used to drive about an hour and a half to Leavers, a mushroom cannery where he would pick up these baby brown buttons they called Champignons de Paris (somewhat justified by the factory being near Paris, Ontario, Canada), bring them home, fry them in gobs of butter and serve them on brown toast. The popularity of mushrooms with Don Day immediately mushroomed.
Next, a skill-testing question for you. Name the mushroom capitals of the world. I know, that would be tough even for Ken Jennings (you have to be a Jeopardy junkie). How about name one mushroom capital of the world? That even I can answer: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Yes, really. Even though I’ve met permanent San Miguel residents who didn’t even know it. The company is called Monterey, the local operation is called Champinones San Miguel. And almost every white, cremini or portabella I bought last summer in Toronto came from, you guessed it, Monterey Mushrooms.
But there’s another mushroom business in San Miguel. It’s miniscule compared to Monterey. But they are doing some very exciting things growing, foraging and selling some of the best mushrooms I’ve ever tasted. The business is called Simbiosis. And if you’re a regular at San Miguel’s Saturday Organic Market you may already be very familiar with Simbiosis.
About a month ago, I walked in, saw the Simbiosis stall and was flabbergasted. There on the counter, next to some straw baskets of oysters was a basket with what I immediately and excitedly recognized as five good sized cepes….or ceps, or porcinis, or penny buns, or king boletes…the reigning and probably forever more heavyweight champion of mushrooms. I’ve paid as much as $10 for a single large cepe in the Dordogne region of France. In Canada, I’ve only seen fresh cepes once in my entire life. And there, staring back at me, was this pot of gold. I asked how much they were. They asked me how much I wanted. I answered all of them. They weighed them and told me 200 pesos. I think it was a perfect stranger who picked me up from the floor.
The cepe season in Puebla is over now. But Simbiosis is bringing another treasure north. Morels, that number one challenger to cepes for wearing the heavyweight belt, are still in season and Simbiosis is shipping them up to San Miguel in by the big enough for 48 beers cooler full. Plus Simbiosis has Six or seven foraged wild mushrooms that they sell dehydrated plus their own mushroom growing business.
In an appropriately dark and dank area behind the Pemex station on Salida de Celaya, Simbiosis is growing ostras, that meaty mushroom that some people say (but not me) not only looks like an oyster but tastes like one. The growing operation is fascinating. Bags are hung by ropes from the ceiling so that they’re surrounded by circulating air and mushroom spores are injected into them. You probably are trying to guess what’s inside those bags and if you were like me I know what you’re guessing. You’re wrong. It’s straw.
Within a couple of days, the mushrooms have started growing. Within a couple of weeks, they’re ready for harvesting.
With so many mushrooms available from Monterey and Simbiosis, I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to have all of them in one meal. Then I thought of the cost and what Don Day’s Wife would say and I thought again. But what if I invited some fun guys (no, the pun wasn’t accidental) and we all split the cost, would she then cook them up in different ways so we could sample everything in one fell swoop?
There were 12 guys here for lunch today. We had almost that many kinds of mushrooms.
For the first course, Don Day’s Wife made a soup that had the whole place a buzz with plaudits. To the chicken stock, leek and coconut broth were added fresh white and cremini mushrooms from Monterey and dried porcinis, chanterelles, morels (a definite treat as they’re $6200 a kilo at Bonanza), wood ears and tejamanils, a mushroom not only had I never eaten, I had never even heard off, until I saw them on the Simbiosis stand at the market a couple of weeks ago. Maia, the woman behind Simbiosis told me it’s found only in Mexico and only in volcanic regions. She also told me I had to try it. Maia was right.
Nat Hansen said, “You may not believe this but until I tasted this soup I thought I didn’t even like mushrooms”.
There were a few dribbles of soup left in Nat’s bowl. There was no trace of anything in his bowl or plate after the next two courses.
The second course was a pasta. Fusilli di bosco. Most chefs’ bosco is a pretty straightforward mushroom sauce. Don Day’s Wife’s is quite a bit different as it’s heavily infusedwith rosemary and dusted with nutmeg. A powdered mushroom base that Simbiosis markets was melded with the chicken, garlic and shallot stock.
Fresh oysters and morels were sliced in good size chunks, sauteed in butter and added with heavy cream to the sauce.
Next a little bit of trivia for you. Did you know that whites, creminis and portabellas are exactly the same; it’s just a matter of their age. I think of whites as Justin Bieber, a little immature and bordering on tasteless. Creminis are Ed Sheeran, with a maturing style that’s enjoyed by almost everyone. And portabellas, maybe they’re Bruce Springsteen, hearty with some well-aged but still welcomed edges.
The Boss was the feature of the next course. Don Day’s Wife had destemmed and hollowed out some giant portabellas from Monterey and then stuffed them with her award-winning Italian sausage topped with a crumbled topping of parsley, parmesan and panko.
The mushrooms were served on a pool of Don Day’s Wife take on puttanesca sauce which includes olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, piquillo peppers, chiles de arbol and, of course, tomatoes.
Don Day’s Wife and I argued…sorry, discussed…the dessert for days before the lunch. I said, “You’ve got to do something with mushrooms?”. She said, “Then you come up with a recipe for a decent dessert than includes mushrooms.” There were no mushrooms in the dessert.
What Don Day’s Wife did make was a chocolate truffle cake with orange zest and chipotle chiles topped with strawberries and sided with a raspberry coulis, Jimmy’s chunky nut ice cream and a sprig of hierba buena.
Mark Clawson, who had previously only been known to exaggerate to women, told the guys, “This is the best dessert I’ve ever eaten in my life.” And Mark has led a lot of life.
We’ve done a few theme lunches over the years in San Miguel. But they’ve almost always been themed around a meat, a fish or something that comes in a bottle. Never a vegetable. Certainly never fungi. The words “the best ever” came out of a few mouths. Which was obviously mostly about Don Day’s Wife’s skills as a chef. But I do think she has to share the accolades with the textures, tastes and versatility of mushrooms.
Mycologist Paul Stammets has called mushrooms “miniature pharmaceutical factories” and Maia from Simbiosis is as enthusiastic about mushrooms’ nutritional, medicinal and ecological properties as Don Day is about their culinary properties.
I knew that mushrooms had no fat and next to no calories. Maia told me that they provide a wide range of amino acids, proteins, minerals and lipids. Plus they can also enhance the immune system, help maintain low cholesterol levels, act as an anti-inflammatory, and help control hypertension.
Maia said, “They can be easily grown in your home, garden, greenhouse and laboratory. Or you can go for a walk and marvel at the forest fruit.”
Or you can go to the organic market and simply choose from the great selection offered by Simbiosis.
Simbiosis is at the Organic Market every Saturday in the old Instituto premises on Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.