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When it comes to growing mushrooms in Hawaii, we no longer live in the dark ages. Unlike traditional fungi growing methods that use dark spaces full of manure, Hamakua Mushrooms of Laupahoehoe raises specialty mushrooms in bright and virtually sterile rooms with the optimum balance of air and nutrients continuously circulating.
“You don’t have to wash our mushrooms because they are raised in a clean environment and usually only touched twice in their lives,” says owner Bob Stanga. That is the distinct advantage of growing specialty mushrooms that are wood decomposers, not requiring a manure growth substrate.
A former helicopter pilot and successful businessman, Stanga is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his 37-acre farm he runs with his wife, Janice, and 15 employees. After selling his business and home on Oahu in 1996, Stanga moved to the central California coast and started reading books about growing mushrooms.
Fortuitously, he hired Janice, then an interior designer, to complete his new home. Janice happened to have a client who grew mushrooms. As their business together evolved, so did the personal life between them.
In 2001, they purchased the current farm location. Bob Stanga focuses on the farm’s production while Janice Stanga works on marketing, design and their business structure. Janice Stanga’s most recent accomplishment is the “Chef House,” an artfully designed house and garden on their property available to visiting chefs and others looking for an intimate retreat.
Hamakua Mushrooms’ more popular varieties like the Ali’i and Pioppini can be found at many local grocery stores as well as farmer’s markets. Stanga also enjoys providing direct sales to Costco and Safeway. Direct sales allow him more control over product quality and volume.
In addition to their excellent retail distribution, the farm’s best exposure comes from many accomplished chefs throughout the state. Hawaii’s best chefs, including Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and George Mavro, regularly use Stanga’s products and are among their cherished relationships.
“People thought flying was fun, but food, people and adventures with chefs are even more fun!” says Stanga.
Initially mentored by leaders from his “sister farm,” Gourmet Mushrooms of Sebastpol, Calif., Stanga has created a highly productive operation, distributing about 5,500 pounds of mushrooms per week. While the Stangas acknowledge their farm has the ultimate capacity to produce up to 7,000 pounds per week, they are now focusing on “polishing” their operation by formally opening to tour groups. In the past, tours have been limited to chefs and various industry organizations.
Judging from the informational video visitors see upon arrival, this farm promises to be a fascinating tour stop. The movie introduces folks to the entire process of the Japanese Bottle Cultivation Method of growing specialty mushrooms, from preparation of the polypropylene jars and substrate (a ground mixture of local eucalyptus, corn cob and wheat bran) to the harvest of 5 ounce mushroom “bouquets.”
Stanga’s clean techniques, allowing minimal contact with the product, create chemical-free mushrooms that look flawless and have shelf lives of weeks.
In addition to the more visible varieties, this farm grows other mushrooms such as the gray oyster and Hawaiian pepeiau (a wood ear mushroom). Soon, Stanga will be releasing a novel local variety, known as the abalone oyster. This particular mushroom was found growing on guava wood, then cultivated in Stanga’s lab, and is now in production. Stanga lights up when talking about this new variety because he’s passionate about this aspect of his business. He appreciates the challenges of keeping mushrooms growing and improving yields; but he’s most excited about developing new varieties and continually optimizing his cultivation methods.
While Stanga focuses on the pristine appearance of his harvested bouquets, there are aspects of his mushrooms that go beyond appearance. Nutritionally, mushrooms provide significant amounts of dietary potassium, fiber and antioxidants. Additionally, these fungi are the only known plant source of vitamin D (usually found in fortified milk and cereal products or animal sources).
While these attributes are important to some, flavor is perhaps the feature most appreciated by mushroom aficionados. With a flavor spectrum ranging from earthy to meat-like, all mushrooms share the characteristic of “umami.” Umami is known as the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Described as a savory, brothy, rich or meaty taste, it’s derived from the Japanese word, umai, meaning “delicious.”
To scientists, umami indicates a high level of the amino acid, glutamate. To chefs and “foodies,” it’s a satisfying sense of deep, balanced flavor and full-bodied taste with distinctive qualities of aroma and mouthfeel. Other foods containing umami are beef, soy sauce, cured meats and aged cheese.
Chef Casey Halpern of Hilo’s Café Pesto values this flavor-rich characteristic of mushrooms. One of Stanga’s regular chef customers since 2003, Halpern uses about 90 pounds of product per week. He makes all of his homemade stocks with Stanga’s products. He also uses Ali’i mushrooms in his renowned Hamakua Mushroom Poke and other varieties in several menu items.
Halpern’s most important goals for his restaurant are serving “real, healthy food and using local products wherever possible.” About 60 percent of Café Pesto’s food cost is derived from locally purchased ingredients, including Hamakua Mushrooms. Creating real, healthy and appealing food is a continual challenge, and one in which Halpern specifically relies on these mushrooms.
Stanga frequently refers to Hamakua Mushrooms as “your one-stop mushroom shop.” Whether it be famous chefs, local cooks or touring visitors, most everyone can appreciate the products from this local success story.
The following recipes (with some variations) can be found on the Hamakua Mushrooms website. For more information or to visit Hamakua Mushrooms, visit http://fungaljungle.com.