By Mira Reverente
Often thought of as vegetables, mushrooms are actually fungi or living organisms with no leaves, roots, seeds or flowers. “Mushroom” is the term most often used for edible varieties while “toadstool” refers to inedible or poisonous varieties.
At the Calabasas Farmers Market last Saturday, we discovered LA Funghi, a vendor that sells these earthy fungi exclusively.
Growing up in the Bavarian Alps, Dirk Hermann’s family owned hotels and restaurants. Hermann has childhood memories of mushroom hunters coming in to trade their wares for meals or a beer.
As an adult, Hermann studied to become a chef and received the highest certification possible in the culinary arts – that of master chef. Currently, there are less than 100 master chefs in the US.
Hermann came to the US and started LA Funghi, a mushroom distribution business simply because “no one else was doing it,” he said. Now in 13 farmers markets all over Southern California, LA Funghi also counts restaurants and hotel chains among its many clients.
Normally, 30 varieties can be purchased at the farmers market stall. But during the peak season of September to December, there are over 40 varieties available.
“About 70 percent are forest-grown and 30 percent are farm-grown in Northern California,” Hermann said.
According to employee Devontae Love, who was staffing the booth last Saturday, the baby shitakes are quite popular among Calabasas market-goers. The morels are also sought-after, but personally, he likes the king oysters the best.
“I just cut it up and stir-fry it with vegetables, spices and seasonings,” said Love, describing how he likes to cook the meaty and savory spring mushroom variety.
From South Africa, the porcini is another seasonal mushroom variety. Usually expensive, porcinis are considered one of the finest-tasting mushrooms.
Mushrooms are brimming with protein and minerals. They are also low in calories and have antibacterial substances to help the body. Cooked fresh mushrooms have more nutritional benefit than the canned versions, which may have more sodium.
The criminis, portabellas, shiitakes and button mushrooms have long enjoyed household popularity over the years; however, Hermann is optimistic that other varieties will gain recognition eventually.
“We just need to educate people and introduce their taste buds to other possibilities,” he said.
According to Hermann, the chanterelle is also quite popular. Grown close to oak trees, the trumpet-shaped fungi’s rich oaky flavor is ideally suited for chicken, beef and sautéing.
The morel is another top-seller due to its intense earthy flavor. The conical-shaped mushroom, usually available in the springtime, is suitable for making stuffing, sauces and stews.
Also known as hen-of-the-woods, maitake, which means dancing mushroom in Japanese, is known for its immune system-enhancing properties.
The Saturday before Easter was unusually quiet and slower than most Saturdays, according to Love. “We do expect it to be busier as grilling season is just around the corner and some of these mushrooms are just fabulous when grilled,” he said.
The Calabasas Farmers Market is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday at 23504 Calabasas Road, across the street from the Sagebrush Cantina.