The magic of shiitake
The magic of shiitake
I remember the first time I tried shiitake mushrooms. It was early 2000. My husband made this fantastic salad (read more about it here) and for long time it was our favorite salad. During that time, I always thought of shiitake mushrooms as of something special and impossible to grow in Latvia. Only a few years ago I discovered that shiitake can be something so different from the ones I tried. They can be amazingly tasty, plus, not only grown in Asia or in a land far far away, but even here in Latvia!
There was a time about 15 years ago when people in Latvia had a craze for growing mushrooms. There were around 150 growers, each smarter than the next, sometimes fighting about the truth, but all passionate about getting results. But 10 years ago, a disease paid a visit to Latvia and killed the spores and mushrooms, along with the passion so many growers had. And then there were only 10 growers left. Nowadays it is even less.
In 2016 when we went to California's Occidental farmers market, I discovered that shiitake can be heavenly and fantastic. There was a man who sold his shiitake, grown just few miles away from the market: they were something I did not know before. They were juicy, moist, smoky, meaty and more, more, more. We bought them that day, and I made a salad that was nothing like I had tried before. It was one of the most amazing shiitake mushrooms in the most amazing salad I had ever made.
To my surprise, in early 2017, someone delivered me a package of mushrooms – shiitake. The package looked small, but, boy – it was heavy. It was heaviest mushroom package I ever had, except when foraging for porcini, because no one can beat those babies. When I opened the package, the aroma of creaminess, nuttiness, and fresh mushrooms just about knocked me over. I stood there, holding that package and inhaling the aroma for about 5 minutes. Nonstop. I can still feel that as I am writing this a year later. From that one motion of opening the box, another world exploded in my kitchen. It was something amazing and it was (and porcini lovers, don't kill me, I am one of you) something even better than porcini. Just for a while, though. I still love porcini a lot. I was amazed that I was actually holding a package of shiitake harvested yesterday, so moist and juicy that I could have put them in a slow juicer and squeezed the juice out of them. That was when I found out that there is a man who has started to grow shiitake in Latvia. I was cooking them and still could not believe it.
Since that fateful meeting, I have had these beauties many times, and every time they arrive, it is a celebration. So one day, I finally decided that I had to visit the farm Trubenieki – or you might want to say, the small house with the incubator where the mushrooms grow and the man behind it – Jānis Volksons.
I did not know what to expect. I thought that I would have to go down into a basement, somewhere where it is muddy, damp, and dark. On the contrary, it was a small, well-lit room full of logs of different trees - oak, hazel, maple and many other leaf trees. There they grow – slowly inhaling the right humidity, moisture, light and everything else that is needed for well grown shiitake.
It takes time to grow them – cutting, preparing and cleaning the wood, incubating, waiting, growing and harvesting. There are few steps I did not mention, but that is already enough to understand that it takes time. As it turns out, one tree can give 5-10 harvests and it all depends on the type of tree for the mushrooms to grow since the density of each tree is different. Most harvests will be on oak, but the tastiest (I would say) on hazel, because the mushrooms just soak up the taste profile of the tree. The taste of the shiitake depends on the tree it was grown on, so the taste can change from one grower to the next, so it is great to mix them. Or if you are picky, ask for one special tree harvest mushrooms.
If you have ever seen how your friends, parents, grandparents picked mushrooms from trees outside, then to do it in incubator is something very different. It is much faster, since you can have the perfect conditions that nature outside cannot give. One of the most important things to grow perfectly heathy, good tasting, juicy and plump mushrooms is CO2, moisture, humidity, temperature, and light. Outside there is day and night, in the incubator – there is day all the time. In nature there is drought, rain, and cold and hot; in the incubator it is the same all the time. It is still natural, but even – all the time. That results in a perfectly good looking and sexy mushroom. The ones that are not that great, the farmers like to dry and grind or sell them for less, but to be honest, I would buy them all as a normal harvest.
There are around 8 different species of shiitake, some of them are great to grow in California and Japan, some of them like to be grown in colder climates. Janis grows the one that likes cold more than heat and can only be grown on natural trees (not substrate). And what’s the difference? The thing I said – they soak up the taste of the tree, plus all the nutrients. They can be organically grown in all conditions, but the taste is very different. So it is not only the label ORGANIC that tells the story, but also all the small steps – from wood to harvest, from human touch to the things nature gives as a gift. The better you treat the product, the better the taste. Simple.
Thank you Janis for showing me your farm Trubenieki
Want to visit – call him first
Want to but – call him
Pictures and story: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s