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Hamakua Harvest

Hamakua Heritage Farms’ Janice Stanga has just shared with me a little-known fact: it’s pointless to eat mushrooms raw. Unlike vegetables, foodies’ favorite fungi release nutrition only when they are cooked. This is stupendous news for anyone who has tasted a medley of exotics flash-sauteed with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil, then simmered in their own juices and a splash of white wine. Stupendous news.

Janice and her husband, Bob could have gone anywhere to create “Hawaii’s Gourmet Fungal Jungle.” They selected Big Island’s glorious Hamakua Coast for both its beauty and its climate. “It’s cooler up here,” says Bob Stanga so this farm with its many climate-controlled areas is more energy-efficient than it would be down in Kona, say. The humidity is just right, too, and there’s an inexhaustible supply of mushroom food: against the bright blue sky, massive stands of grandis eucalyptus blanket the hills as far as the eye can see. Wood-decomposing mushrooms eat the cellulose and lignum in tree bark; that’s why you see them in nature on and around tree trunks.

The varieties grown by the Stangas—dark, crunchy pepeiau akua; regal, tusk-like alii; prized hon-shimeji; and the velvety Italian pioppini—are all reared on a mixture of sawdust, wheat corncob and water. The ratio varies according to the species of mushroom, the specific formulas are key to the farm’s success, just one step in the elaborate dance that produces exotic mushrooms celebrated in Hawaii’s culinary community. Top chefs from every corner of the Islands share these delicacies with their guests. Alan Wong flies his key staff over to the farm for full tours. “He wants them to see and get to know the product,” explains Stanga. “Most of them say, ‘Wow, I had no idea the process you have to go through!’”

The process begins with a tractor (a.k.a. the measuring cup) scooping up sawdust, corncob and wheat meal. Those are mixed with water to make the mushrooms’ nutrient supply, which is packed into 1000 ml bottles in the classic Japanese bottle cultivation method, proven to produce the best yield. A hole is punched in this mixture, called substrate, creating an empty cylinder in the middle. The jars go through an autoclave, and then a solution of mushroom spawn fills the empty columns in the jars, which, Stanga explains, “is full of rich nutrients. The spawn begins to digest the plant matter, the cellulose and lignum, from the inside out.”

Once filled and resealed in sterile conditions, the jars go into the climate-controlled incubation room. There they sit, untouched until their contents turn from substrate brown to pure white. White is the color of mycelium, which has just consumed all of the brown substrate and colonized the jar, its housing. Mycelium is a cottony substance that will ultimately produce “fruit bodies,” the mushrooms themselves. Always underground in nature, mycelium waits until conditions are just right to send a fruit up through the earth. That’s why mushrooms can appear out of nowhere after a sudden cool night or early morning shower.

At the farm, mycelium will incubate (eating the substrate, taking over the jar) for anywhere from 21 days (the gray oyster) to three months (the shimeji, a very slow eater). When the jars are white, they’re ready for the Kinkaki machine. Kinkaki is a Japanese word meaning “to scrape germ.” They’re uncapped for the first time since they were sterilized. The top surface of the mycelia mass, which  now occupies the entirety of each individual jar, is scraped down a few centimeters. This provides a bit of extra insurance that there are no germs inside. More importantly, it shocks the never-touched organism, stimulating it to grow. It’s essentially the trunk of the mushroom; the stems will grow up from here, clearing the mouth of the jar.

Every jar now goes to an outdoor “grow room,” climate-customized for its occupant. The exception is the pepeiau akua (Hawaiian Wood-Ear) which is endemic to these islands. “We found it growing in the woods right here on the Hamakua Coast,” says an enthusiastic Stanga. He and his team wasted no time getting this treasure into the lab and building an outdoor grow room replicating the local environment. “We’re the only farm in the world that grows this mushroom. People just freak out when they see this. Usually you can only get the wood-ear imported, dried, from China.” The pepeiau has a very mild flavor and crunchy texture. It packs a peppy punch in miso soup and is unbeatable when prepared with sesame oil, sesame seeds and Hawaiian hot chili peppers.

Inside, each grow room is different. The alii’s room smells like deep, dank forest and looks like a nursery from the beyond. Rows and rows of jars sport appendages peeking out like extrawide antennae of ivory space snails. This first, fat-stemmed species is the Fungal Jungle’s top-seller. “It’s versatile and taste great,” according to Stanga. “It’s got a sweet, nutty flavor that is the perfect base for stronger flavors. It doesn’t overpower.”

The newest species at the farm is the pioppini. “The caps have a sweet, deep flavor, and the stem is reminiscent of a heart of palm.” Pioppini mushrooms are also known as Black Poplars, named for the trees on which they’re known to grow. Then there’s the gray oyster, the go-to variety for stir-fry and soup dishes. In yet another grow-room, he watchfully grows the patience-demanding kea- (Hawaiian for white) and brown hon-shimeji, whose spongy stems grow in extra-tight clusters and are very tender and juicy.

The moment of trust is the day of harvest. Each species has a different way of indicating readiness. A subtle change in color under the cap; the way the gilled under-body curves or doesn’t curve. On that day, someone will grasp the jar in one palm, the base of the mushroom in the other, and pop it right off. Right then and there, the harvested mushrooms are inspected, bagged and boxed for sale, and wheeled directly into the large chiller to await shipment, purchase, and the bellies of happy eaters. “Nobody’s pawing all over them,” he explains. “There’s practically no time spent between the grow room and the chiller.”

The warm and fuzzy part of the story is former helicopter pilot Stanga’s awakening to the environmental concerns that we all now need to embrace. There is literally no part of his operation that doesn’t yield something for someone. The spent (eaten) substrate, for example, gets sealed in bags and used to grow helpful humus around plant bases. “Mushrooms are natural recyclers of the earth,” he says, with nearly paternal pride. “It would be sacrilege to grow mushrooms and not recycle. It came naturally, so to speak.”

Finally, and with so many tales, the most exciting part is yet to come: Hamakua Heritage Farms has built a special “chef house” on property. “The point is to get the chefs together with the farmers,” says Stanga. Alan Wong is expected to be the very first to host an event here. “He made us promise he’d be the first.”

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