As I’m sitting here writing this, the smell of mushrooms cooked in butter and garlic wafts through my house. I’m preparing a wonderful dinner with pasta and maitake mushrooms from Rainforest Mushroom Company of Eddyville, Oregon.
The hour and a half trip to the coastal valley was a little outside of my zone, but since Rainforest Mushrooms sells at the Salem Saturday Market, I figured I could stretch the 50-mile radius commonly thought of as “local.”
I’d never seen mushrooms grown before. I didn’t really know what to expect – a cave? A dank brick basement? Certainly not the ramshackle wooden barn to which I pulled up early one weekday morning. The barn looked to have been built early in the last century and in the corners and under the eaves is tucked an amazing collection of interesting objects – bicycle parts, machine parts, stacks of wood. Out of the barn’s dimness appeared Bob Rudel, owner of Rainforest Mushroom Company. Bob, who has studied physics and industrial technology, has always been interested in mushrooms. He told me how he was raised on a farm in North Dakota, and started his operation with $30 that he kept in a white sock. He showed me a contraption he built himself, out of two huge industrial wire spools and spare parts, in which he mixes the medium in which the mushrooms grow. It turns out that mushrooms are not, as the old joke goes, kept in the dark and fed shit, but grown in dim light, sterile conditions, and a mixture of sawdust and grain.
He showed me the grow houses. They reminded me of yurts – white plastic stretched over rebar frame and thick with insulation: a stable temperature is important. Inside, the moist warm air had a woodsy smell. Tall shelves held plastic bags full of the sawdust mixture, and out of the tops of the bags bloomed the mushrooms like exotic flowers – maitake, shiitake, oyster, buttercap, lion’s mane. Bob explained that the organism itself is the part that is underground; that what we think of as “mushrooms” are the really the fungus’s reproductive organs. “You can visualize that any way you want,” he grins.
In another part of the barn is the clean room, complete with HEPA filters. “This room is as sterile as a microchip plant,” Bob told me. He explained how important it is to keep any stray spores from infecting the growth medium. Bob grows his mushrooms from clones, rather than spores, to keep the strains true and the quality high: “when you clone, you can be sure of what you are going to get.” Rainforest mushrooms are watered with spring water and certified organic by Oregon Tilth. Bob told me that he grows organic, because he feels that once you start using artificial inputs and chemicals to control pests and disease you enter into an increasing cycle of need and expense; that growing organically is not only good for the environment, but makes economic sense as well. Bob and his wife, Debbie, sell their mushrooms at farmer’s markets in Salem, Eugene, Newport, Beaverton and Corvallis: “I like to see the people who eat my food.”
He leads me to another part of the barn where maitake mushrooms are piled in boxes and baskets. Bob told me that miatakes are said to boost the immune system and increase T-cell count; many of his customers are interested in preventing or fighting cancer. He handed me two of them, gothic chrysanthemums the size of softballs. “These are for you.”
On the stove, the miatakes are fragrant and earthy, soaking up butter and garlic. I pour a glass of red wine and sit down to eat pasta al funghi, I can’t testify to the medicinal qualities of these mushrooms, but I can say they are utterly delicious.