In rows and rows of old shipping containers in dark, dank buildings, fungi grow are growing in neatly stacked and sealed plastic bags. These modest mushrooms will soon be shipped out to hundreds of restaurants, farmers' markets and supermarkets across the West.
When most people think of the phrase "farm to table," they think of apple-cheeked farmers toiling in sunny fields, delivering bushels of leafy produce right to the chef. Certainly, the vision of odd-shaped mushrooms sprouting in the dark isn't as romantic as amber waves of grain. But few places have done more to further the connection between restaurants and producers than the Hazel Dell Mushrooms farm near Fort Collins, and even fewer have its presence on local menus.
Far from the shriveled slivers of fungi that dot Pizza Hut pizzas and Olive Garden tortelloni (usually white button or portabello), Hazel Dell mushrooms are meaty, unruly and often downright ugly. The oyster mushrooms are twisted, wrinkled, smallish. Lion's mane mushrooms are delicate, soft and disconcertingly...furry.
But cooked right, these 'shrooms can knock you out with their freshness and flavor, especially when compared to store-bought, plastic-wrapped creminis and shiitakes. Credit is due to Jim Hammond of Hazel Dell, who brought organic, gourmet mushrooms to Colorado.
About thirty years ago, Hammond lucked into a job overseeing huge buildings packed with mass-produced mushrooms for Dole Pineapple's mushroom division, which still packages the majority of supermarket mushrooms. After three years, he was looking for a change -- and he stumbled right into it. "I came across some people growing exotic mushrooms in a crappy old shed," he says, "and decided to start playing around with growing mushrooms in my garage." Growing Hazel Dell mushrooms is a game of constants. They must be grown on a "substrate" of hardwood-only sawdust that must be procured from nearby furniture plants. The substrate must be sterilized in giant ovens to destroy any fungi-killing contaminants. The mycelium culture that grows the mushrooms must be kept at 75 degrees. By following this strict formula, Hammond's process yields year-round crops of unique mushrooms that have gained his company a substantial following in Colorado. "You walk into a restaurant with a box of mushrooms and say, 'Here's a free sample,' and usually they call you back and say, 'Wow, we really liked your mushrooms, can I start buying 'em?'" says Hammond. And in addition to passing through the kitchens of almost any establishment using local produce, Hazel Dells are now sold at every major Colorado farmers' market and western Whole Foods stores, and distributed through the gargantuan restaurant supplier Sysco. "It's a good local product, and we like the people who sell it to us. It's just awesome," says Laudisio Ristorante sous chef Scott Shaden, who first met the Hazel Dell folks while slinging pizzas at the Boulder Farmers' Market.
"When I was a busboy," Shaden says, "I wasn't fully aware of where we were buying all our products. But as I moved into the kitchen, I started to realize how much local products we buy."
On its summer menu, Laudisio uses Hazel Dell mushrooms as the centerpiece of fettuccine con funghi, a medley of six mushroom varieties tossed in cream and truffle butter, sprinkled with shallots and given a splash of sherry. The truffle -- the mushroom's distant, erudite cousin -- is on hand as a subtle accompaniment to the woodsy mushrooms and the tang of sherry.
The Hazel Dells in the fettuccine and its mushroom-and-shallots side are tender and dripping with olive oil, ready to be paired with fat noodles or any of the mushroom-centric dishes that Laudisio cooks up every season, like duck salads or cream of mushroom soups. At Laudisio, farm-to-table cuisine is more than just a buzzword -- it's what makes him excited about his job. "I love looking out and seeing the farmers eating their own food. I always thought that was cool," Schaden says, laughing. "I like to know the people and I like to know it's the best-tasting product. It's the freshest, it's traveled the least, it's got a longer shelf-life because it hasn't been sitting around in warehouses or on trucks... there's really no detriment.
"And it's romantic to know the guy who made the vegetables, or even go out on the farm and help him plant the seeds, help him harvest, buy it from him, cook it into something edible and then serve it. It's like, I just had a hand in every part of this," Schaden says, tossing his hands in excitement.
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"Or at least, I knew the person who had a hand in every part of this. It's a whole romantic thing."