James Beard award-nominated writer, editor, and recipe developer, Joy Manning attended the 28th annual Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square on behalf of The Mushroom Council. Take a look at her top ten highlights and mark your calendars for next September.
Flavorful and nutritious, mushrooms are the kind of ingredient that can inspire a party. And for the past 28 years, mushroom growers and the eaters who love them have made the annual Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square, Pa., one of the biggest and best parties in food. Spanning the weekend after Labor Day each year, it extends the summer fun one weekend longer with live music, contests, games, a car show, carnival rides, and—of course—tons of delicious food. I had such a great time during my visit this year that I’ve already earmarked that weekend for mushrooms in 2014. Here my top 10 highlights from this year’s fest. If you were there, too, please leave your own highlights in the comments!
On the quick bus ride between the festival and the Caputo & Guest Mushrooms farm, our driver asked the crowd on board who had driven more than 100 miles to be at the festival. Hands shot up all around the bus, with some folks coming from as far away as California. That should be no surprise—mushroom lovers are an enthusiastic bunch. Mark Malchione, the farm manager, led the tour of the mushroom house, where we saw every stage of the process, from the logs that are made from grains and sawdust to give the mushrooms nutrients and a place to grow, to tiny newly sprouted spores and fully sprouted shiitakes looking ready to slice into a stir fry. Malchione also provided a great shopping tip: look under the cap when buying shiitakes. They should look fresh, unblemished and creamy white. His definitely did.
Many food fanatics around the country are already familiar with Talula’s Table, a Kennett Square market and restaurant that is known as one of the most difficult-to-get reservations in the US. What the chefs there may be less known for is their dexterity with mushrooms. They made a variety of treats inspired by the local bounty, including wonderfully crisp mushroom spring rolls.
Chef Jack Mavraj in the Culinary Tent
There was a full roster of great chefs—include celeb Carla Hall–doing mushroom-centric demonstrations in the Culinary Tent. I watched Kennett Square’s own chef Jack Mavraj shake his skillet for the crowd. He cooked homemade agnolotti, fresh pasta dumplings stuffed with three kinds of mushrooms and braised short ribs. He also made a robust four-mushroom sauce—filled with shiitake, oyster, cremini, and maitake mushrooms—to serve with the pasta and short ribs. I may make a vegetarian version in my own kitchen this fall.
At a couple stands throughout the festival, tables were set up with tons of different local mushrooms for sale. Obviously, the wares could not have been fresher. They were clearly just picked! Some oyster mushrooms were $8 pound—about half the price I might pay in the supermarket. It was the perfect place for someone like me, who cooks with mushrooms a few times a week, to stock up.
Oyster Mushroom Fritters with Feta, Hot Sauce and Spring Greens
Low in calories and rich in nutrients like selenium and Vitamin D, mushrooms have rightly earned their place in the pantheon of good-for-you foods. That doesn’t mean they aren’t also perfect deep fried and served with cheese, spicy sauce, and a salad. The meaty oyster mushrooms tasted almost like boneless chicken wings, especially when mixed with the cheese and sauce. Would I eat this every day? No. Am I counting down the days until I eat it again at 2014’s mushroom festival? Yes.
Breaded Button Mushrooms
Another delicious choice in fried mushrooms: the classic breaded mushroom. I have always appreciated a pizzeria that sells these kind of fried mushrooms, just plain buttons covered in a basic, crunchy breading. At the festival, this classic got a big upgrade just from the pristine, fresh local mushrooms that were used.
Official Mushroom Festival Soup
Even though it was a warm beautiful day, everyone at the festival seemed to want a bowl of steaming mushroom soup. Something about the mushroom’s deep earthy flavor makes for such a perfect bowl of comfort, and the official soup of the festival was no different.
Not every mushroom highlight was edible. On display at various shops throughout Kennett Square were beautiful, hand-painted mushrooms. Local artists projected their visions onto concrete mushroom forms three feet high; the results decorated the festival and were sold via silent auction.
Mushroom Growers Exhibit
The big shady tent where growers set up tables to represent all the stages of the mushroom growing process was a huge draw. Kids, parents, and grandparents all seemed equally captivated at how the process works. Best of all, the growers themselves were on hand to chat with festivalgoers and patiently answer all the questions everyone had about their work.
Ice Cream Stop at La Michoacana
As I headed out of the festival, my last stop had to be dessert. The homemade ice cream churned at La Michoacan is a must for any visit to Kennett Square. The shop was into the spirit of the event with plenty of mushroom ice cream bars on hand, and this was clearly a popular choice.