Mushrooms a major part of the culture and commerce in Oregon Wine County.
Mushrooms have been a part of human cuisine for thousands of years, according to archaeologists, and the variety and complexity of fungal flavors are as great as can be found anywhere in the world of food. And though the universe of edible mushrooms ranges from the simple white that frequently top pizza to treasured truffles gracing the finest culinary masterpieces, the Yamhill Valley is a great place to locate many of them.
The major source of mushrooms in the area is Yamhill County Mushrooms’ commercial growing operation just north of Yamhill. Tyler Darm, office manager of the family-run company, explains the company’s three main products — white mushrooms, criminis and portobellos — all stem from the fungus Agaricus bisporus. The growing cycle runs year-round in a series of dark, climate-controlled rooms with racks stacked 10 feet or more. Trays of compost, made from wheat straw and chicken manure, are loaded with spores. Creating and preparing the compost is critical to the process, Darm explained.
“It has to do a lot with creating something perfect for growing mushrooms and perfect for only growing mushrooms and nothing else,” he said “When you make something perfect for growing a fungus, its likely a random spore is going to land somewhere, so that’s why we do it inside.” The indoor composting process ensures that no unwanted flora or fauna enter the mushroom beds, allowing Yamhill County Mushrooms to run a pesticide-free facility.
Once the spores begin to develop, a layer of peat moss is placed over the compost to induce fruiting — the growth of the actual mushroom. One “planting” can be harvested as many as three times as the fungus regenerates following pickings.
“You can get about seven pounds of mushrooms from each square foot of these trays,” Darm said. “We do about 100,000 pounds per week.”
Brown mushrooms will become either criminis or portobellos, depending on how long they’re allowed to grow before harvest. Portobellos are popular for grilling, Darm explained, so the company harvests more in summer, while cooler months elevate demand for the kinds of stuffed mushroom dishes specifying criminis. But the world of mushrooms expands far beyond the cultivated. Chefs seeking specific mushroom flavors usually have to venture into the wild and find them themselves.
“There’s a big difference between cultivated mushrooms and the ones you have to go out in the woods and find. Wild mushrooms are so much more dynamic — they’re all so different and interesting,” explained Chris Czarnecki, owner and chef at The Joel Palmer House in Dayton. “Each wild mushroom has its own character.” Mushrooms are a family passion for Czarnecki, a fourth-generation chef, restaurant owner and mushroom forager. The family restaurant moved to Dayton in 1996, taking the name of its new accommodations, and Czarnecki took over upon his parents’ retirement in 2008. The renowned chef explains how finding the mushrooms is part of the fun of his particular brand of cuisine.
“I like getting out in the woods once in a while, too. It gives me an excuse to spend time with the family and put food on the table at the same time, Czarnecki said. “We have a small army of friends and family that go out and scout, act as sort of our reconnaissance patrols. When we hear that they’re out or know that there’s been the right kind of rainfall at the right time of year, we’re literally loading up the car with people and baskets and going to get them. Dad (Jack Czarnecki) likes to do what he calls ‘drive-by mushroom hunting.’ There’s certain parts of the Oregon coast where you only leave the car when you actually see the mushrooms.”
Much as the climate of the Yamhill Valley lends itself to excellent Pinot Noir and other cool-climate wines, the area is prime real estate for a variety of fine wild mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, the region’s wine and mushrooms often share a complex, delicate flavor profile, amplified when enjoyed together.
“One of the more alluring aspects of Pinot Noir is that it’s softer, it’s smoother. It’s not as big and in-your-face as a Cabernet or a Zinfandel. With that subtlety comes nuance to the aroma and the palate, and you don’t want your food to overpower that,” Czarnecki explained. “We don’t do spicy food here; if you get too much spice, it will overwhelm the Pinot Noir. If you drink a big, bold Cabernet, that’s going to linger on the palate and the mushrooms aren’t going to be able to stand up to it.”
Like all seasonal ingredients, what’s growing affects what’s cooking, and the weather influences what’s growing. Despite the heat, this summer was a great season for summer mushrooms, as Czarnecki explained. “It’s not about ‘Was it hot? Was it dry?’ It’s about ‘How long was it hot and dry?’ We did have a couple bursts of moisture, and that’s what keeps those systems alive and able to produce. This was probably one of the best chanterelle seasons I’ve ever seen here. My phone wouldn’t stop ringing with people trying to sell me mushrooms,” he said. “I find they pair well on a plate with tomato, basil, saffron works really well. I’ll do lighter stocks. You don’t want to put heavy strong meats with a chanterelle because you will wipe out their natural flavor.”
As summer shifts to fall, mushrooms like porcinis and matsutakes appear, just in time for Christopher Flanagan, executive chef at the Dundee Bistro, to pair them with other fruits of the fall.
“They’re called pine mushrooms,” Flanagan said of matsutake mushrooms, “so they have a bit of a piney smell, but as soon as you add them into broths and stocks and sauces, it really enhances their flavor. You almost enjoy more of the smell than the taste because they’re so perfumed in the sauces.”
As the weather becomes wetter and cooler into winter, truffles start to ripen throughout the area. Truffles are their own unique subset of the wild mushroom universe, both for the quality of their flavor and their difficulty in finding. Truffles grow below the surface, frequently near the bases of trees, and are tricky to locate by human faculties alone. Either a rake or a well-trained dog are usually needed to detect the small, round fruiting bodies, but the results are more than worth the effort.
“It’s the allure of finding them,” Flanagan said. “They’re a little more difficult to track out. It was one of the first intriguing ones for me that really got me into mushroom hunting.”
Flanagan’s favorite truffle dish allows the unique aromas of the prized clusters take centerstage — he’ll create a truffle butter, which is as easy as leaving some ripe truffles in a sealed container with the butter and letting the aromas merge, then sauté tagliatelle pasta in the infused butter with shavings of truffle mixed in. It seems simple, but the depth and richness of the truffle flavor makes the taste anything but.