Most companies would avoid describing their products as ugly. But Far West Fungi has some fun with its sometimes alien-looking products, selling "ugly shiitake baskets" filled with misshapen mushrooms at farmers markets across the Bay Area.
"They're not perfectly formed, but they're so delicious," said John Perez, who comes every other week to the Mountain View market to pick up an "ugly" basket.
Toby Garrone, who owns Far West Fungi with her husband John, said, "People always laugh and say: 'Well, I don't really care what they look like. They taste the same, right?'"
The Garrones have been the sole owners of Far West Fungi since 2004, and grow their organic mushrooms in Moss Landing in Monterey County. Besides offering shiitake, Far West grows and sells bulbous large-stemmed king trumpets, delicate and ghostly tree oysters, maitakes resembling miniature coral reefs, and other varieties.
The company has stands at 16 farmers markets, including the Saturday Palo Alto and Sunday Mountain View and Menlo Park markets. They also sell non-organic "agaricus" varieties such as white and brown buttons from Global Mushrooms in Gilroy.
"We carry them because they're such the standard mushroom," said Robbie Desanto, who works at Far West's stand at farmers markets and the company store in San Francisco.
Desanto said he's witnessed customers purchase the more common mushrooms for years before trying the more exotic varieties. "It's that initial getting away from the 'regular' mushrooms that scares people at first."
At a recent Sunday market in Mountain View, Desanto sold mushrooms, answered questions and handed out recipe ideas along with co-workers Hope Moseley and Merl Sabado.
When a customer asked Sabado what to do with yellow oysters, she recommended dropping them in a soup. "But towards the end. Don't let them sit too long," said Sabado, who has worked with the Garrones for over 25 years.
Sauteeing mushrooms with vegetables or using them in omelettes are common customer uses for their fungi. But Caitlin Eanes said she had a more elaborate dish in mind for her mushrooms: chestnut pappardelle in a brown butter sauce with English peas. "I'm using maitake, but black trumpet would have been better," she said.
Back at the Moss Landing farm, Toby Garrone said risotto is "always good with mushrooms" and likes to use a combination of shiitake, oyster and king trumpet.
Her husband's latest recipe involves taking the large stemmed king trumpet mushroom, cutting them paper thin and sauteing them in butter. "The mushroom itself comes out like a chow fun noodle, and sauteing them in butter makes a really nice, sweet, mushroomy sauce," he said.
He added that king trumpets are also firm enough to be cut in half and thrown into a roast.
Customers at the Mountain View market repeatedly mentioned the willingness of Far West's employees to talk about their mushrooms. When a customer asked Desanto why organic button mushrooms are hard to find, he gave a detailed answer about the variety's susceptibility to mold that makes organic growing uneconomical.
"They are so delighted to give you information," said Orly Ben Yosef, who has visited Far West's farm and is a member of a group dedicated to promoting mushrooms.
John Garrone has been selling mushrooms at the Palo Alto market for more than 25 years. He said the market has an unusual feel because of its ties with Avenidas, a senior organization that receives donations from the volunteer-run market."The dynamic is very community-oriented," he said.
The Garrones have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of farmers markets, from the 1980s when Palo Alto had the only market on the Peninsula, to the present day, where some cities hold multiple markets in a week.
Though the increase has ultimately been good for business, Toby said there was a time when the addition of new markets diluted sales. "It felt like you had to keep on doing more and more farmers markets just to make what you used to make at two of them," she said.
The Garrones said the biggest challenge to their business is the large number of inexpensive shiitakes imported from Asia, which can sell for a third of the price of Far West's product.
Regional demand for organic food is key to their business, they said. "We're fortunate that we have a nice, niche market in the Bay Area," John said.
About a third of Far West's production is sold at farmers markets, with the rest going to wholesalers such as Whole Food, Veritable Vegetable and Earl's Organic Produce.
Toby said that without companies willing to pay a higher price, the business would be completely dependent on farmers markets. "We're running out of kids and trucks. There's only so many farmers markets we can do."
The Garrones weren't shy about sharing their feelings about the quality of their imported competition. "They smell funny," John said.
Toby added: "I couldn't put my mushrooms in a plastic bag and put them on a ship for three weeks and have them come out looking like something you want to eat. So we are really clear that it is somehow processed."
John and Toby said they can not only identify imported shiitakes by sight, but that they can also recognize their own from other domestically grown.
They recalled being in a Whole Foods and seeing shiitakes that they suspected were their own, but were labeled "grown in Washington." After asking a worker to bring out the original box, they found their suspicions confirmed.
"We were laughing later, going, 'That's a little neurotic: We know our own little babies,'" Toby said.
Costs for growing have also increased, they said. Far West grows most of its mushrooms out of blocks made up of red oak sawdust and organic rice bran.
"At one time sawdust was a free item that people wanted to get rid of," Toby said. "Now it's an expensive item."
Far West Fungi has a store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and a farm in Moss Landing, and makes regular appearances at local farmers markets. The company is at the downtown Palo Alto market on Gilman Street on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, May through December. On Sundays, there are tables at the Menlo Park market off Chestnut Street and the Mountain View market at Hope Street and W. Evelyn Avenue, both from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. all year. For details, go to farwestfungi.com or call 650-871-0786.