Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Bedford Winery's annual Mushroom Festival offers education and good eats in Los Alamos
Allow me to apologize for my disdain of mushrooms.
I was forced to evaluate my lifelong dislike of one of the culinary world’s favorite ingredients on a short drive from Santa Maria to Los Alamos with my fiancé. We were headed there for Bedford Winery’s 11th annual Mushroom Festival on Saturday, Feb. 4.
“Seriously, why don’t you like mushrooms?” he asked for the third time, pestering me out of the comfort of my nonchalance.
“I don’t know, I just don’t like them,” I said, trying to put my feelings into words.
As a writer, this should come easy to me, but when faced with explaining why I can’t wrap my mind around the world’s love for a food that is literally a fungus, I am at a loss for words.
“I just don’t like the way they taste. Or look. Or feel. Or smell,” I said.
“You are absurd and they should fire you as the food writer,” he declared.
I could go on and on about how many times I’ve tried to enjoy mushrooms. No matter their manifestation—sautéed, deep fried, roasted, infused in sauces—each time I walk away with the same crinkled nose and profound aversion. Perhaps in my youth my palate was poisoned by the canned mushrooms in mom’s casseroles. Maybe I had one too many soggy mushrooms on cold pizza in college. Whatever the reason, I was apparently an island in my opinion of the fruiting body of the mycelium.
But to my fiancé, and to a growing majority of the culinary community, mushrooms are king, an exquisite addition to any meal. I certainly was alone among the crowd packed into Bedford Winery on that Saturday. I had come seeking answers to the mystery of the mushroom’s popularity, hoping to find something or someone who would show me the light.
The event was sold out, nearly standing room only when we arrived. Participants squeezed into the back patio at the winery, listening intently as organizers described the upcoming dishes.
One should dream to someday be as passionate about anything as Stephan Bedford is about mushrooms and this annual event. Elated like a child at Christmas, Bedford, owner of Bedford Winery and host of the event, spoke to me about mushrooms the way some people describe witnessing a double rainbow.
“This event is about celebrating what we have locally,” he told me. “We’re really here today to explore mushrooms, through different dishes and different ways of doing things.”
One of the mushrooms featured at the event was the chanterelle, one of Bedford’s favorites. Fleshy and graced with a fruity apricot aroma, chanterelles are favored by chefs for their rich and nutty flavor.
“It’s a choice edible,” he explained. “You can find them at the store or local restaurants, and they are incredibly delicious.”
Bedford’s team had also cooked up some unique tamales made with the huitlacoche mushroom (also known as Mexican corn truffle), which grows on corn husks.
“Our culinary crew have been doing this event for years, they’ve researched for years, looking at how these recipes are done and ways to make it interesting,” he said.
Another mushroom featured during the event was the porcini, prized for its earthy flavor and sharp smell. Looking over a cast iron stock filled with a gorgeous bounty of vegan porcini and chard oat risotto, I couldn’t help but consider what I was missing. Diners lined up to scoop heaping portions of the dish onto their plates, while I could only look on thinking that I must be missing some strand of DNA that tells my taste buds, “this is good.” I felt as left out as I did when I was in third grade and every one of my friends could do a cartwheel except me.
If excitable foodies couldn’t point me to the specific reason behind the mushroom’s unwavering popularity, maybe science could.
Bob Cummings, a mycologist who teaches at Santa Barbara City College, served as the in-house expert during the festival. Cummings is widely regarded as the go-to mushroom guy in the region, who can answer just about any question, from growing to foraging to the microscopic differences between the endless types. He was busy answering technical questions and showing off an impressive variety of mushrooms, all of which he’d picked the day before.
I asked him why this unlikely species had managed to captivate the culinary community. Was there a special chemical formula or a secret in mushroom’s biological makeup that drives diners wild?
“What could be better than truffles, porcinis, or morels?” he answered. “These are the foods of the gods. All great chefs have recognized that through the ages.
“It’s a fascinating group,” he added. “They’re so beautiful and there is so much variety, with so many incredible colors. They are bright yellows and purples and blacks and whites.”
Even scientists, it seems, can be prone to waxing poetic when it comes to mushrooms.
But there’s another reason why mushrooms fit so well into the Central Coast culinary environment. Just like our beloved pinots, mushrooms have a zealous fan club engrossed in every detail of their consumption, from growing to harvesting to eating. Some California regions (although not yet the Central Coast) even have their own mushroom clubs, which meet regularly to conduct “forays,” outings to forage and learn about mushrooms.
But casual foragers should be wary—it’s not as simple as it looks.
“As it turns out, most of the edible mushrooms do have a poisonous lookalike,” Cummings said.
The ever-popular chanterelle has a dangerous counterpart known as the false chanterelle, which is highly poisonous. Knowing a few key diagnostic characteristics in smell, appearance, and growing location can save you a painful trip to the emergency room.
Pointing at two nearly identical mushrooms on the table, Cummings explained how easy it can be to make a costly mistake when foraging.
“There is no singular dyed-in-the-wool way that you can tell if a mushroom is edible,” he explained. “You have to learn every mushroom individually.”
“You have to treat them like flowers,” Bedford said, echoing Cummings. “Not all of them are edible, by any means. You don’t want to eat every flower you see.”
Someone who knows a thing or two about cultivating edible mushrooms is Branden Janikowski, owner of Branden’s Gourmet Mushrooms. Janikowski supplies several different types of mushrooms to local restaurants in and around Orcutt.
At the festival, Janikowski offered pints of chestnuts, a nutty and fragrant variety good for roasting; blue oyster mushrooms; and shiitake, a variety once scarce in American kitchens and restaurants that has grown so much in popularity in recent years it’s now featured on many grocery store shelves.
“Shiitakes have a steak-like flavor, which is great for stir-frying or sautéing,” Janikowski said. “They can all go with anything, really. It just depends on how you cook them.”
Janikowski empathized when I told him I wasn’t a mushroom appreciator.
“My wife doesn’t like them either,” he said. “I just like the flavor, I don’t do anything complicated to them. I just sauté them in butter, and I think they’re really good.”
I had sought out the Mushroom Festival that day looking for a fungus awakening. I thought I would be converted, like an atheist besieged by a flood of religious enlightenment. That didn’t exactly happen (there were no lightning bolts or anything like that) because honestly, who has time to stop riding a roller coaster to explain to a skeptic on the ground why it’s fun?
However, I did walk away with a greater appreciation if not for mushrooms, then for the people who respect, cultivate, and enjoy them.
Rebecca Rose can be found picking the mushrooms out of her food on any night of the week. She can be reached through Managing Editor Joe Payne at email@example.com.
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