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More than 100 miles north of the city, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, the three Bulich brothers grow mushrooms on land their grandfather began farming in 1945. Not long after the elder Bulich emigrated from the Balkans, fungus farming in the Catskills became something of a bandwagon. "There was a mad rush in the late 1930s for mushrooms, so a lot of little farms popped up," Mike Bulich tells me via phone on a rainy mid-August morning.
As we speak, he's getting ready to dismantle a tractor in need of a new radiator hose. "If you can't find something to do on a farm, you're in trouble," he says.
In its mushroom heyday, the Hudson was home to 40 or so commercial mushroom farms, but the Bulich farm is the last major producer in the area, and the only one still serving New York City. There are a few small-market farms up around Saratoga, but all the others died out through the generations or moved to greener pastures. "Pennsylvania's where they perfected the science of growing mushrooms commercially, so that's the center of production," Bulich says. "When you have other farms nearby, you have all the services, all the suppliers. I have to travel to Pennsylvania once a month for supplies."
Still, the Buliches' daily haul is impressive; with five full-time employees, the brothers hand-pick 4,000 pounds of portobello, cremini, shiitake, oyster, and white button mushrooms. Since the actual farming takes place in lab-like conditions behind climate-controlled doors, production isn't beholden to the changing seasons and fickle weather patterns that derail other crops, and it's an endless harvest. "Much like dairy farming, it's nonstop, constant," Bulich says. "It's not like vegetable farming, where you get the winters off in terms of harvesting. We're picking mushrooms every day."
Bulich describes the production as an agribusiness rather than a farming practice: "You're very precise with everything to get the most production you possibly can. . . . It's not planting a seed and waiting for the thing to grow anymore."
The process begins with a blend of composted horse and chicken manures mixed with gypsum, which is steam-pasteurized in the mushroom barn to eliminate harmful bacteria and competing flora. "When you go into the barn after pasteurization, it's clean like a hospital room," Bulich says.
Then they seed the compost with mushroom spores, which grow into a dense, weblike root system called mycelium, which they cover with peat moss. When enough mycelium strands poke through the peat, it's go time. "We shock the room by introducing a lot of fresh air, and that forms the pins—tiny little mushrooms right there in the peat moss," Bulich says. "They start fruiting out a week later, and you're picking mushrooms for 21 to 30 days after that." Aside from that single shock, the entire 60-day cycle takes place at a constant temperature: 65 degrees for cremini, portobello, and white button mushrooms, and 58 for oysters.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Buliches are up at 3 a.m., packing a truck bound for the Union Square Greenmarket. Mercer Kitchen chef de cuisine Christopher Beischer and Union Square Café's Carmen Quagliata are regular customers.
Quagliata likes to use fresh mushrooms for an Italian mushroom sformato—an eggy dish he describes as "Italy's take on a custard." It's a real crowd-pleaser and something Quagliata personally enjoys: "I really look forward to making that in the fall every year. It's one of my favorite dishes we do here." He also adds shiitake to vegetarian dishes as a pork substitute: "I love to use them in a way that I can get a lot of umami from them," he says. "I usually use bacon, so I'll smoke the shiitake and use it to kind of re-create that bacon flavor. So it's like nature's bacon."
Beischer, chatting from the kitchen at Mercer, says he uses lots of Bulich shiitake. "I love the nuttiness of them, they're super meaty," he says, but in general, "fresh mushrooms are just so versatile, you can use them in so many dishes. . . . They're all over the menu."
Beischer sautés diced shiitake with enoki mushrooms and ginger to garnish his steak, and uses white buttons to quietly add depth to salads. "We shave them paper-thin for a fennel salad, and we cut them into little matchsticks and serve them on our shrimp salad," Beischer says.
At his own table, Bulich says he likes to simply sauté them in butter and garlic and serve them with practically everything, from steak and chicken to pasta and pizza, and that sounds like a great use to me. Some buttery, garlicky sautéed oyster mushrooms would go a long way to jazz up any old bowl of leftover leaf lettuce; it's a simple fix, but it looks and tastes slick.
For the chefs, it's really about quality. Fresh-farmed mushrooms are "fuller, more meaty," Quagliata says. "You can tell they were just picked and brought to market. They're just more pristine."
Beischer agrees: "The product is markedly fresher than conventionally produced and sourced mushrooms. These are picked literally a day or two before we get them, and it's hard to find that from a commercial purveyor. We're fortunate to be able to get them from the greenmarket; we're lucky."