Mushroom days

Some nice canned mushroom soup a couple of days ago [added 9/25: Amy’s Soups mushroom bisque with porcini] reminded me of Kennett Square PA, a pleasant little town in the land of mushroom growing that my family used to visit once or twice a year, to enjoy the extensive Longwood Gardens there and to have some mushroom dishes in the town (I always had brown mushroom soup, aromatic and tasty). Lovely memories.

(#1) In the Historic District of Kennett Square

On the town, from Wikipedia:

Kennett Square is a borough in Chester County, Pennsylvania, United States [very close to the Delaware state line; about 50 miles south of Reading PA, outside of which I grew up]. It is known as the Mushroom Capital of the World because mushroom farming in the region produces over 500 million pounds of mushrooms a year, totaling half of the United States mushroom crop. To celebrate this heritage, Kennett Square has an annual Mushroom Festival, where the town shuts down to have a parade, tour mushroom farms, and buy and sell food and other goods.

And on Longwood Gardens, also from Wikipedia:

Longwood Gardens is an American botanical garden. It consists of over 1,077 acres (436 hectares; 4.36 km²) of gardens, woodlands, and meadows in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, United States in the Brandywine Creek Valley. It is one of the premier horticultural display gardens in the United States and is open to visitors year-round to enjoy native and exotic plants and horticulture (both indoor and outdoor), events and performances, seasonal and themed attractions, as well as educational lectures, courses, and workshops

It’s a huge place, with far too much to see in a single visit. In fact, you could have a substantial and satisfying visit entirely inside the conservatory (as many people do at Christmas time, when the conservatory is full of seasonal color, amazing Christmas trees, and surprises). My family generally went in the spring, to catch the azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom, and sometimes in the fall, especially for asters and chrysanthemums:

(#2) Chrysanthemums lining the walk leading to the conservatory (in the background)

The central areas are masterpieces of artifice that use living plants as the raw materials (with the exhibits changing during the year), while much of the rest of the grounds is carefully cultivated wildness in profusion, plus some formal gardens, fountains, and pools.

The Chester County mushroom business and its history. From the Modern Farmer site: “The One Tiny Region That Produces Nearly Half of U.S. Mushrooms” by Roger Morris on 5/16/14:

Kennett Square is king of fresh, commercially-grown mushrooms. Not only is mushroom farming the leading agricultural pursuit in Chester County, the area is also the largest producer of fresh mushrooms in the United States.

Chester County’s 61 mushroom farms account for 47 percent of total U.S. mushroom production, according to Pennsylvania’s Agricultural Development Council. This means over 400 million pounds of mushrooms valued at $365 million, with an overall contribution to the local economy of an estimated $2.7 billion. The industry directly employs almost 10,000 workers, mostly from the area’s large Hispanic community.

The landscape surrounding the region is dotted with single-level cinderblock buildings — variously called mushroom “barns,” “houses” and “doubles” — where the mushrooms are grown.

(#3) Mushroom barns

The roads themselves hold a vehicular menagerie — flatbed trucks carrying baled hay for compost coming from as far away as the Midwest, dump trucks carting steaming compost to and from the barns and, of course, panel-bodied trucks racing to deliver just-picked mushrooms to nearby processing facilities. And when all that compost is being turned and is particularly ripe, winds carry that particular, rank aroma that says, “You’re in mushroom country.”

The bulk of the mushrooms produced in the area are in the Agaricus family, the ubiquitous white and brown buttons plus the large portobellos that have become popular grilled-steak substitutes of late.

(#4) Button mushrooms in a barn

The region also produces what are called “specialties” or “exotics” — shiitakes, oysters, maitakes, beeches, enokis and pom poms. (Unfortunately, wild porcinis and morels have never been tamed.)

Fresh-mushroom production is both labor-intensive and mechanized. Compost, once made from horse manure, now begins as hay spread on concrete slabs. Nitrogen is added, and the compost is turned for several days until it is a steamy, smelly mass. It is then transported to mushroom houses, spread on growing racks and pasteurized before the delicate, disease-prone spawn are planted and topped with peat moss, limestone and water. A few weeks later, tightly clustered mushrooms start to appear.

About 10 or 11 weeks after a crop is sown, mushrooms are hand harvested over a period of several days.

… [some social history:] Mushroom growing started regionally in the 1890s as an adjunct business for greenhouse owners who sold fresh flowers to Philadelphia. Nearby horse farms and race tracks supplied manure for compost. Mushrooms were an attractive crop to the thousands of Italian families who migrated to the area in the first quarter of the last century, a population used to foraging wild mushrooms, and today many mushroom companies are owned by second-to-fourth-generation Italians.

Very simple mushroom soup.A fortuitous find on the net, an Anthony Bourdain recipe for a very simple mushroom soup on the Epicurious site: Anthony Bourdain, José de Meirelles, Philippe Lajaunie, June 2004, from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook:

(#5) The Bourdain mushroom soup

Not the recipe, but the ingredients list, just to show you how minimal it is:

6 tbsp butter, 1 small onion (thinly sliced), 12 oz. button mushrooms*, 4 cups light chicken stock or broth, sprig of parsley, salt and pepper, 2 oz high-quality sherry

* or you could use brown crimini or portobello mushrooms; that would pretty much reproduce the brown mushroom soup of my childhood — which I hadn’t thought about until the canned soup appeared, and suddenly that soup was my Proustian madeleine, calling up, intensely, the scent and taste of those long-ago lunches in Kennett Square and the warm pleasure of sharing the experience with my parents and grandmother.

Bourdain’s notes for an improvisation:

To astound your guests with a Wild Mushroom Soup, simply replace some of those button mushrooms with a few dried cèpes or morels, which have been soaked until soft, drained, and squeezed. Not too many; the dried mushrooms will have a much stronger taste, and you don’t want to overwhelm the soup. Pan sear, on high heat, a single small, pretty, fresh chanterelle or morel for each portion, and then slice into a cute fan and float on top in each bowl.

(Oh fuck, I miss Anthony Bourdain.)

One Response to “Mushroom days”

  1. Bill Stewart Says:

    Hope we can get back there for a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah next year. We love Longwood, particularly for the organ [me, anyway], but find the gardens at Winterthur more appealing. The Campbell’s Soup Tureen collection is priceless, even if the docents there are too snooty.

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