PORTLAND, Maine — It’s an unlikely setting.
On the outskirts of downtown, wedged between a billiards bar and a busy stretch of train tracks, lies a graffiti-marked cinder-block garage. Deep within, a delicate beauty grows under heavenly white light.
Welcome to Bountiful Mushrooms Farm. Here, alongside heavy traffic and light industry, three urban farmers toil to bring fresh oyster mushrooms to life and deliver them to 20 local restaurants.
In a city that places a premium on farm-to-table dining, Bountiful Mushrooms has brought the farm that much closer to the table.
That closeness also opens up new opportunities for the fleshy white fungus. Now that the oyster mushroom can be delivered to kitchens within 20 minutes of harvesting, chefs can plate them in the same manner as meat – a centerpiece rather than a sideshow.
As far as Khanh Le knows, Bountiful Mushrooms Farm is the only mushroom grower in Portland.
Le and his business partner, Scott Payson, set up shop last year and began harvesting their first crops a year ago. Earlier this month, they added a third partner, Devin Stehlin, an experienced mushroom grower from Massachusetts. At their current pace, the farm produces two varieties of oyster mushrooms – gray dove and Po Hu – at about 200 pounds per week.
For the past year, the farm has operated largely in the dark, so to speak. There is no sign outside their business. They have no website. There is no advertising or promotion. A Google search reveals nothing. The farm joined Facebook just a week ago, on Oct. 21.
But soon, the business will grow, Le said.
The entrepreneurs are looking to add different varieties, like shiitake, lion’s mane and wine caps, and eventually hope to achieve their shop’s growing potential of 800 pounds per week.
They’re also planning an expansion into different regional markets like Portsmouth, N.H., and parts of Massachusetts – areas within a day’s drive.
Anything farther would defeat the purpose, Le said.
When Le moved to Portland from New York City in 2011, part of the appeal was the small city’s food culture, he said. Later, he and his friend, Payson – a Connecticut native – noticed a lack of local mushrooms in an otherwise local- food-obsessed community. Most of the mushrooms came from the West Coast.
“We decided one day we needed to fill that niche in the market and work with our hands and build stuff,” he said. “So here we are.”
Although the farm’s Forest Avenue exterior appears rough and tumble, the operation is surprisingly sophisticated.
The mushrooms grow indoors within climate-controlled tents under brilliant light. An automated system keeps the temperature and humidity at a constant, and adds an occasional flood of white fog from overhead piping.
If conditions fall outside of an optimal range, the farmers automatically receive alerts via text message.
Despite the high-tech, futuristic setting, the original partners claim ignorance.
“We knew nothing when we started out,” said Le, 34. “We still know nothing.”
Payson, 51, joked that the daily bloom of new mushrooms is still surprising to the semi-amateur growers.
“Hey, look at this,” he said in a bewildered voice. “Mushrooms! Holy smokes!”
Strange little life form
Stehlin, 26, is the newest member of the team. He operated a mushroom farm in Massachusetts for three years, then moved to Scarborough in March. By chance, Stehlin was discovered by Payson, who signed him up for a full-time position.
Stehlin’s enthusiasm for edible fungus was apparent during a recent tour of the facility, when he provided a primer on the mushroom’s life cycle.
The mushroom itself represents a tiny fraction of the plant’s total life. In the wild, most of the show takes place out of sight and underground, where mycelium – a white, cottony tissue that resembles a neural network – spreads through the earth devouring nutrients.
When the nutrients in an area are depleted, the mycelium sends forth its reproductive organs – the mushrooms – which protrude through the soil and shoot spores into the air, which, ideally, will alight on a new food source and begin the process again.
Unlike most plants, which consume carbon dioxide and exude oxygen, mushrooms do the opposite, which, coupled with their resemblance to a neural network, makes them seem almost sentient.
On Forest Avenue, the mycelium grows in wheat straw instead of soil.
The process, which takes about four weeks from start to harvest, begins when the farmers chop the straw and stuff it into clear, polypropylene bags that, when finished, resemble heavy bags from boxing gyms.
Next, the farmers insert a wad of cottony mycelium into the bag, which is then hung in a darkened tent.
After a few weeks, when the nutrients from the straw are consumed, the bags are moved into the brightly lit tents, where mushrooms begin to emerge from a series of evenly spaced holes that have been poked into the plastic.
Four days later, the mushrooms are picked and immediately delivered to restaurants.
“The quality just doesn’t compare,” Stehlin said. “Just walk into a grocery store and look at their oyster mushrooms. It’s a whole different world. They’re tattered, they’re broken, they’ve taken a long trip, maybe on a plane.
A brand new bag
On a crisp Saturday morning in October, a crowd had formed at the Portland Farmers Market in Deering Oaks Park. There, Bob Belanger – a Portland resident and self-described foodie – approached a group of strangers standing near a display of Bountiful Mushrooms Farm’s mushrooms, tapped a man on the shoulder and offered an unsolicited comment.
“They taste just like roast chicken,” Belanger said.
For Le, that’s partly the point.
“In food culture, mushrooms are always taken as a side note. They’re a side dish or a topping or a garnish,” Le said. “We want to show people that mushrooms can take center stage.”
So far, the idea is spreading. At Local 188, a restaurant on Congress Street, chef Jason Burrows said the freshness makes them versatile.
“You don’t have to chop them up or put them in stocks,” he said. “You can serve them whole.”
The restaurant serves the mushrooms marinated in annatto oil, within a risotto or in a saute, which often sells out, he said.
Lisa Silverman, a cooking teacher who founded Five Seasons Cooking School in Portland, picked up a pound of the mushrooms at the farmers market. She said she buys the mushrooms often, but wasn’t aware that they were raised in the city. That would explain their “snap,” she said.
“They’re alive. They’re not soggy or wilted,” Silverman said. “Look how beautiful they are.”
Jodie Jordan, owner of Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, has been selling the mushrooms at his farm stand since March. At the height of summer, Jordan was selling about 40 pounds a week, at $14 per pound. Jordan doesn’t eat mushrooms, but said they have earned high marks with customers.
“They rave about how good the flavor is,” he said.
Even at their relatively high retail price, the partners at Bountiful Mushrooms Farm aren’t exactly getting rich from their efforts, Le said.
“It’s a very labor-intensive, very fun and dirty job,” he said. “As of right now, it’s not at all about the money, because we’re not making any money. The past year has been a labor of love.”