Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A delicious business mushrooms

Cardiac nurse grows exotic 'oysters' and melts the hearts of some of Cincinnati's finest chefs

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rhonda Wilson holds a "bouquet" of exotic oyster mushrooms, which she grows in the cellar of a century-old dairy barn on her 55-acre farm in Melbourne, in Campbell County.
Photos by BRANDI STAFFORD/The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rhonda Wilson, husband Eric Girty and his 13-year-old daughter, Alyx , play with their Chesapeake Bay retrievers on their Melbourne farm, where Wilson grows her exotic oyster mushrooms.

[IMAGE] Oyster mushrooms grow from plastic bags of straw that hang in Wilson's barn.
[IMAGE] Jean-Robert at Pigall's, downtown, serves oyster mushrooms in a ravioli appetizer of rock shrimp, pureed spinach and saffron sauce.
Even as a little girl in Westwood, Rhonda Wilson felt the tug of the earth.

She wanted to ride horses, grow tomatoes and get her hands dirty. So when they had the chance nine years ago, Wilson and her husband, Eric Girty, left the city life for a 19th-century house on 55 rambling acres in Melbourne, about 20 miles southeast of downtown, near the Ohio River on the Kentucky side.

On their G&W Farm, between a rocky ridge and crooked creek, there's plenty of room for two horses, six dogs, eight cats, a dozen ducks and a garden. Wilson works as a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Clifton, but looks most comfortable on the farm in jeans with her long brown hair in braids, where she grows crops for the finest restaurants in Greater Cincinnati.

But this unusual harvest never touches the ground. In the dim, damp cellar of her century-old dairy barn, Wilson grows exotic oyster mushrooms - gorgeous clusters of delicate fungi shaded gray, pale blue, rosy pink and canary yellow. Freshly picked, the fan-shaped mushrooms, which grow on straw in hanging plastic bags, smell like warming earth in spring sunshine.

"Every morning, I get to pick a bouquet of mushrooms," says Wilson, who had never seen or eaten an oyster mushroom until she began tinkering with them nearly three years ago.

Lunch-hour delivery

To be accurate, Wilson is picking more than a bouquet of mushrooms every morning. Because they grow so quickly, she harvests mushrooms twice a day, every day - about 70 pounds a week. At least twice a week, she takes the mushrooms to work in a cooler stowed in the back of her Toyota pick-up. On her lunch hour, she breaks away from the cardiac telemetry unit, which she manages, to deliver mushrooms to restaurants, usually wearing her blue hospital "scrubs." Some of the chefs and cooks around town call her "Nurse Rhonda."

The fact that Wilson plucks mushrooms so religiously is the biggest reason executive chef Vik Silberberg of the Celestial in Mount Adams loves them.

"She picks them only an hour or two before they come to the kitchen," says Silberberg, who specifies the smallest oyster mushrooms for his medley of spring vegetables.

Jean-Robert de Cavel, chef-owner of Jean-Robert at Pigall's, downtown, uses the mushrooms in a ravioli appetizer of rock shrimp, pureed spinach and saffron sauce. He describes the flavor of the mushrooms as "buttery" - so buttery you can smell their richness when you cook them.

"You cannot buy them any fresher," de Cavel says.

Hamming it up

In the low fluorescent light, the bags hanging in Wilson's barn cellar look like large, perfectly shaped hams. Or maybe punching bags with creepy things sprouting from them.

Six days a week, she is up before dawn, planting and caring for her precious oyster mushrooms. It all begins with untreated wheat straw Wilson buys from a reliable farmer in Falmouth. She pasteurizes the chipped straw at 150 degrees in a 60-gallon steam kettle for hours to kill bacteria. She then "inoculates" the straw with a sprinkle of tiny mushroom spores and stuffs it into plastic bags - a foot wide and 30 inches long - with eight holes punched in each.

Many fresh exotic mushrooms are highly perishable and expensive. But a few varieties are available dried at a lower price.
• Chanterelle: Beautiful, wild, yellow mushrooms prized for their flavor and texture. Available dried.
• Cremini: Also known as Italian brown mushrooms, these are younger, smaller portabellas. Most are cultivated.
• Morel: These earthy and flavorful wild mushrooms arrive in late spring and have a short season. Available dried.
• Oyster: So-named because of their subtle oyster flavor. Most are now commercially cultivated.
• Porcini: Wild Italian mushroom with meaty texture and robust flavor. Available dried.
• Portabella: Large version of cremini, portabellas have a more assertive flavor and texture suited for grilling and roasting. Cultivated.
• Shiitake: Although most are cultivated, shiitakes still have a wild mushroom flavor. The Japanese and other Asians use shiitakes dried.
Pair mushrooms with meat, pasta or potatoes
Although Wilson doesn't sell her mushrooms retail, another local grower, Matt Madison, sells his at his family's markets. Madison's oyster mushrooms are $6.40 per pound and available at Madison's Markets at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, Ridge Market in Pleasant Ridge and beginning Monday, at the new Madison's Produce of Glendale (27 Village Square) in Glendale. To learn more about G & W Farm's mushrooms:
• The Celestial, Mount Adams
• Germano's, Montgomery
• Iron Horse Inn, Glendale
• Jean-Robert at Pigall's, downtown
• The Palace, downtown
• Rondo's, Westwood
Wilson recommends keeping mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Storing mushrooms in plastic bags can make them decompose more quickly. Properly stored, most fresh mushrooms last up to three days.
She hangs the bags in her climate-controlled "spawning room." After about two weeks, she moves them to a larger "grow" room, also temperature-controlled and with a sprinkler system to keep the bags moist.

A week or so later, the oxygen-craving mushrooms begin creeping out of the holes in the bag to "fruit." When they reach the right size, Wilson snaps off the mushrooms and chills them for delivery.

"The mushrooms grow so fast that if I don't harvest them twice a day, they might get too big," says Wilson.

Her science background helped her learn to grow mushrooms successfully in straw-stuffed plastic bags, but Wilson admits she had her share of failures in the beginning.

"I did think about giving up once or twice," says the woman who doesn't quit easily - she went back to college four times to get her bachelor's degree.

Idea came from an ad

Her husband always has supported her, but the wacky mushroom-growing scheme was Wilson's idea. An ad in a farming magazine for a Northern Ohio company first caught her eye. The company, which sold mushroom-production equipment, was offering weekend seminars on oyster mushroom farming. Wilson and Girty decided to go to learn more in February 2001.

"We thought oyster mushrooms would be perfect because they're highly perishable and aren't usually sold retail," she says. "But we were close enough to Cincinnati with restaurants that might buy them."

The couple didn't like what they learned: The production equipment would cost nearly $200,000 - money they didn't have and didn't want to borrow.

"We weren't ready to go bankrupt over this," Girty says.

But within six months, he and his wife came up with a plan. Girty, who works in maintenance for a North College Hill retirement center, outfitted the barn cellar for growing the mushrooms. Wilson then found the used steam kettle for sale on the Internet for less than $3,000.

By August 2001, Wilson was growing mushrooms in her barn, and soon she and her husband were looking for someone - anyone - to buy their mushrooms.

"I was trying to peddle them to natural food stores in Clifton," Girty says. "It was pretty bad."

Their break came in December 2001, when a nurse at Good Samaritan (everyone but the patients at the hospital know Wilson grows mushrooms) suggested she talk to her neighbor, who was a restaurant chef. His name is Ron Wise, and he was then chef at the Iron Horse Inn in Glendale. When Wilson brought in a sample of her oyster mushrooms, Wise bought them on the spot.

"They were so fresh and so beautiful, I just had to buy them," he says.

The chef still buys Wilson's mushrooms at his new restaurant, Rondo's, in Westwood, where he uses them in chicken marsala, with sauteed tilapia and in his special cream of mushroom soup.

For the next nine months, Wise was Wilson's only restaurant customer. But then, after meeting them at a Chefs' Collaborative meeting in Cincinnati, Silberberg and de Cavel began buying her mushrooms. And soon, Guy Hulin, chef of the Palace at the Cincinnatian Hotel, downtown, ordered them without seeing the mushrooms or meeting Wilson.

Unlike many small, local farmers and producers, Wilson keeps her mushroom prices competitive - less than $6 a pound. She now delivers to six restaurants, and with a few more customers onboard, Wilson can justify building another mushroom growing room. Her plan, within two years or so, is to work part-time as a nurse and full-time as a mushroom grower. When that happens, she believes she'll still enjoy picking bouquets of dainty oyster mushrooms every morning.

"Will it ever feel like work? Maybe," she says. "But I enjoy work."

Somehow, she'll figure out another way to get her hands dirty.


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