I know this girl that hates mushrooms. It doesn’t surprise me. She hates a lot of the foods that I love. But as I add the finishing touches to latest batch of Cream of Mushroom Soup, I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
This soup has everything. It has butter, leeks, shallots, Porcini mushrooms, delicate local white mushrooms, thyme, lots of cream, and Madeira. I’m standing over the soup and inhaling those delicious, fragrant aromas when she confesses this. It’s as if she just told me she hates my mother.
She doesn’t hate my mother. She likes my mother. So it’s not the same.
Still, how could anyone hate mushrooms? The truth is that mushrooms fall into that category of strongly flavored foods. I might clump some of the more flavorful mushrooms together with blue cheese, caviar, and wild game. For this reason there are a lot of people who really, really love mushrooms and a lot of people who really can’t stand them.
Among the more primitive of our foodstuffs, Mushrooms are related to molds and yeasts. Because they cannot photosynthesize sugars, they must live on the decaying remains of other organisms. The part we eat is only one stage in the organism’s life. An interesting note about mushrooms is that their cell walls are composed of chitin. As you may have learned in high school biology, Chitin is a carbohydrate-amine complex that makes up the outer skeleton of insects.
Mushrooms have a meatiness to them. This is mostly because of an abnormally high content of glutamic acid. A natural form of MSG, mushrooms help intensify and flavor many dishes. The taste and smell of mushrooms reminds me of forest loam. Often, they smell and taste this way because of what they are grown on. Like just about every other plant, animal, or fungus, mushrooms have the characteristics of what they feed off of.
In the wild, Button mushrooms are commonly found in fields and grassy areas after rain from late spring through to autumn. Prior to 1707, white mushrooms could only be enjoyed in regions where the conditions were hospitable. However, because of commercial cultivation many mushrooms (especially the white mushroom) can be grown in temperature and environment controlled facilities all over the world.
As it happens, the mushroom growing capitol of the world is a stone’s throw away. Kennett square, Pa is home to one of the largest concentrations of mushroom growers in the world.
Last week I took a drive through Kennett Square to see if I could get a sense of the place as it relates to mushroom growing. However, you don’t really see a lot of mushroom growing in the mushroom growing capital of the world. Driving through the historic downtown area, I noticed many busy cafes, restaurants, bookstores, and inns. It was a bustling January morning–the gears of commerce set well into motion. But as I passed through the downtown area and on to the outskirts of Kennett Square, I began to see a different sort of commerce, an almost invisible commerce at work.
Speckling the pastoral hills were various nondescript concrete structures. Large square buildings made of cinder blocks stretched out along the landscape. Occasionally one was marked with a large number or letter. Otherwise these mushroom houses were virtually invisible. Numerous huge vents belched massive white clouds as warm air from within confronted the cold January morning. The sun was shining. At one facility, a large truck was being loaded with what appeared to be dark brown mulch or compost used for mushroom beds. Beyond that, the area carried no other sign of mushroom growing.
All of the action was taking place behind the walls of these rotund complexes.
Inside these buildings one traditionally finds humid and dimly lit bays. Along these bays are rows and rows of fungi blossoming out of dark brown “soil.” Gloved workers will survey the mushrooms and select those that are satisfactory for sale. Many are perfect and are harvested for packaging. Others will be left to grow further.
It was precisely this secret terroir that inspired me to create the Wolff’s cream of mushroom soup.
Currently we are using beautiful local mushrooms gathered from Cardille Mushroom Farm in Avondale, Pa. The porcini mushrooms we purchase dehydrated and use them to make an intense and aromatic mushroom stock. Together, these mushrooms and other ingredients come together to make our Kennett Square Cream of Mushroom Soup.
As I finish adding the last few ingredients to the pot, I can’t help but smile at my friends confession. She doesn’t know what she’s missing, I whisper, ladling out a large portion for myself.