In Pennsylvania, the Morel the Merrier

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Some people love mushrooms and hunt for them in field and forest. Others are content to pick up a shrink-wrapped package or plunk down dear sums at the farmers market. And then there are those who don't like them at all and have silently suffered through stuffed-cap appetizers and cream-of soups. Either the idea of eating fungus is off-putting, or they just can't shake the memories of rubbery, canned slices.

Until recently, I was a vocal, blech-ing member of the last group. In testing recipes for The Post's Food section that call for meaty, fresh portobellos and the like, however, my attitude has shifted. Now my journey has come to this: a mecca in southeastern Pennsylvania where mushrooms are the No. 1 cash crop. The state produces about 60 percent of the nation's total yield.

A day of scouting online and calls to pals in Philly helped form my food-centric game plan: Visit the mushroom farms, if possible; eat the best of what's made in and around Chester County; and buy specialties that are worth the trip. Stay in a convenient B&B; take my BFF Patti, an avid mushroom consumer. And borrow a big cooler.

In no time at all, it seems, green space and crab apple trees stretch before us on a Saturday afternoon, and we feel happily far removed from home. Horses swish their tails in pastures. We spot long cinder-block mushroom houses, with their telltale exterior machinery and bursts of steam pouring from some of the doors.

Late lunchtime is the right time to arrive at Carlino's Specialty Foods , an Italian market and catering business in the borough of West Chester. We dawdle along a massive display housing 179 kinds of cheese. Employee Matt Weiss, 22, sees us eyeing a two-foot-wide platter of seafood salad in the vast prepared-foods cases. Care for a taste? We do, and we like, but the mixture probably won't withstand a day of travel.

We head for the man shoving cheesy flatbreads into a brick pizza oven. Care for a taste? Seriously chewy, with layers of pepperoni. It doesn't make it to the checkout counter.

Our haul: almond syrup, ciabatta bread, garlic knots, house-made quadrucci pasta and marinara sauce, $21.61.

With dinner reservations looming, we forgo a stop at nearby Eclat Chocolate (24 S. High St., 610-692-5206) and head for the claw-foot-tub charms of 1860s-era Faunbrook in West Chester, one of the area's grander bed-and-breakfasts. Owners Steve and Lori Zytkowicz are newbies, having bought the business in March. But their hospitality skills are evident as they quickly add a tall air mattress to our room, stash our cold goods in their fridge, recharge our GPS unit and print out directions to Talula's Table in Kennett Square, the borough that hosts the annual fall Mushroom Festival.

The fine-food gods had smiled on us: We had snagged two places at the chef's table on short notice. Husband-and-wife co-owners Bryan Sikora, the chef, and Aimee Olexy opened their gourmet market and bistro in 2007, offering a single seating per night for an eight-course tasting menu that changes about every six weeks. It's BYOB, and the main farmhouse table's eight to 12 guests must be of a single group.

Olexy takes reservations starting at 7 a.m. Call tomorrow and you'll get nothing sooner than May 2009, but the kitchen spots might be available on a last-minute basis.

Is it worth the wait? You bet. The atmosphere is relaxed; the food is sublime and artfully presented. Each day, the 38-year-old chef uses the best ingredients available, including greens picked from his garden or during his forays on bicycle. Olexy's smarts about cheeses inform course No. 7. I am pleased to see wild morel mushrooms featured in course No. 6.

The damage: Tax and tip included, $230 (for two).

The next morning, after house-made quiche and broiled grapefruit at Faunbrook (those Zytkowiczes really like to cook!), it's time to get what I came for. The area once boasted 400 mushroom farms, which grew from efforts at the turn of the 20th century to maximize space in commercial carnation greenhouses by planting mushrooms beneath the flower benches. Now there are about 75, due to industry rigors and consolidation. Public tours are rare and limited mostly to Mushroom Festival opportunities.

Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square is the largest grower of specialty mushrooms in the country and an innovator in the field. "There's a 90 percent chance the enoki or shiitake or oyster you eat comes from here," says general manager and mushroom expert Jim Angelucci.

On weekends, Phillips's buildings appear quiet. Inside, they are humming with immigrant workers who pick, stem and pack; mushrooms need constant monitoring. Much of the workforce is Mexican, and that has given rise to seriously good Mexican restaurants in Chester County.

Phillips's cash-and-carry window for the public is open only on weekdays, so we head to C.P. Yeatman & Sons in West Grove, home of Mother Earth Organic mushrooms. (Both Phillips and Mother Earth Organic products are sold at many Washington area grocers, but they are cheaper when bought in Pennsylvania.) The haul: five-pound boxes of fresh Mother Earth Organic portobellos, $12.50 each. If operations manager Tom Samuels is around, he'll sell from the office on Saturdays. Otherwise, the office is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The station wagon is pretty full, but we take on final acquisitions at Va La Vineyards in Avondale.

We admit that our visit there was based initially on its quirky Web site ( Anthony Vietri is doing something different, producing a mere 1,200 cases a year of grape blends that are unique. Wine Enthusiast Magazine recently included Va La in its list of favorite U.S. wine-tasting rooms, and we understand why. The place is friendly and enjoys being a boutique attraction among the handful of Brandywine Valley wineries.

The damage: Tastings of four wines paired with food, $10. Mixed case, $270 (with 10 percent case discount price). Local cheeses, chocolates, jams and jars of marinated mushrooms, $37.

With that, I retire my blech-ing ways.

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