Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sebastopol 'shrooms

The town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County is known for Gravensteins, the pretty yellow-green apples with red stripes. Even though many of the century-old apple orchards were uprooted in the last 25 years and replanted with vineyards you still come across plenty of old, gnarled Gravenstein trees when you're driving around the quiet roads here.
Besides apples and grapes a bounty of other fruit is grown around Sebastopol. It was, after all, the place where Luther Burbank operated his experimental farm and developed more than 800 new varieties of fruits and vegetables.
So, it's not surprising that Sebastopol became one of the leading producers of mushrooms a few years back when shitake, oyster, chanterelles and other exotic varieties started to pop up in supermarkets alongside the old standby white button mushrooms.
Sebastopol-based Gourmet Mushrooms produces more specialty organic mushrooms than any other company in the U.S. One of its most popular mushrooms is the delicate, earthy Velvet Pioppini, which has dark caps and an intense forest flavor. (Look for the Mycopia brand at Whole Foods and other fine markets). Gourmet is not open to the public but, just south of Sebastopol there's a small mushroom operation -- New Carpati Farm -- where you can visit, talk to the mushroom grower and pick your own funghi.
Steve Schwartz, the owner (photo above), named the company for the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe where his father was born. His company is a simple operation consisting of a small cave-like hut. Inside, shelves are lined with bricks made of oak saw dust, where he plants fungus spores. A wild assortment of fungi emerge, mostly varieties of shitake and oyster. Schwartz sells them at the Sebastopol farmer's market on Sundays but you can also call him (707-829-2978) and set up an appointment to visit the little hut. There, in the damp and quiet, you do as chefs sometimes do and pick your own mushrooms, the freshest you've tasted.

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