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Morro Bay Mushrooms grows several varieties of oyster mushrooms that are out of this world 

click to enlarge DAILY CATCH Morro Bay Mushrooms often harvests multiple oyster mushroom varieties, such as elm, the day of the farmers' markets Rosa Zunino sells at.

Photo By Camillia Lanham

DAILY CATCH Morro Bay Mushrooms often harvests multiple oyster mushroom varieties, such as elm, the day of the farmers' markets Rosa Zunino sells at.

"Feel that," Morro Bay Mushrooms owner Rosa Zunino tells me.

I pet the fuzzy white mycelium growing on top of a beautiful blue oyster mushroom that tastes just as good as it looks.

"Isn't that so cool?" she says, alluding to the fact that mushrooms are adept at reproduction. Mycelium is the stuff that mushrooms fruit from. When mushrooms are plucked from their growing environment, they release spores, which can quickly become mycelium, according to foodland.com.

click to enlarge SATURDAY IN THE PARKING LOT Morro Bay Mushrooms owner Rosa Zunino speaks with a customer at the April 3 farmers' market in San Luis Obispo, while intern Nico Saiz is ready to help. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • SATURDAY IN THE PARKING LOT Morro Bay Mushrooms owner Rosa Zunino speaks with a customer at the April 3 farmers' market in San Luis Obispo, while intern Nico Saiz is ready to help.

Gold, blue, gray, elm, and brown oyster mushrooms populate the table in front of her, carefully cultivated and grouped into small, medium, and large trays for the April 4 Saturday farmers' market in San Luis Obispo. Delicate gills beneath soft caps cluster together in shades of gray and brown.

"Smell that," she says after she trims the bottom off a nest of gold oyster mushrooms.

click to enlarge GOLD STANDARD Gold oyster mushrooms wait to be surrounded by other varieties in a crate Morro Bay Mushrooms is packing for a local restaurant. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • GOLD STANDARD Gold oyster mushrooms wait to be surrounded by other varieties in a crate Morro Bay Mushrooms is packing for a local restaurant.

They're nutty and earthy, slightly different than the gentle eau de sea that emanates from some of the other varieties around her. I eventually sauteed both the blue and the gold into a frittata with some asparagus and parmesan cheese. It was fabulous.

Mushrooms—specifically oyster mushrooms, which are named for their resemblance to the bivalve that happens to also be propagated in Morro Bay—are Zunino's thing. But they haven't always been.

Zunino grew up in Oakland before moving to the Central Coast in 2000, where she spent some time in Lompoc before moving to Morro Bay. At the age of 20, she started working in the medical field, doing back office medical billing, case management, collections, taxes, and other administrative tasks for doctors' offices and hospitals. In 2018, she began farming the little fungus that tastes so good.

"I had my daughter when I was 42, which was wonderful, and I also realized that because I was 42, I probably wasn't going to be having more kids," she told me over the phone the day before the market. "The priority for me was to still earn a living, still be a provider, and also be a mom, full-time."

So she started brainstorming jobs that she could do at home, and she tried a couple of different things that didn't tick the boxes she lined out for what she wanted. Zunino even made gourmet marshmallows for a while, which she said were tasty but time-consuming. On her feet for 12 to 18 hours a day wasn't the life that she envisioned for herself and her daughter. And because the recipe needed to be made just so, she didn't feel comfortable giving another person the space to follow her lead.

At some point, she landed on mushrooms, falling into the research before giving it a go. She consumed books on how to cultivate mushrooms, YouTube videos, instructional websites, and Ted Talks. As she learned by doing, Zunino strung together bits and pieces of that knowledge into Morro Bay Mushrooms, which started with homemade hoop houses in the small backyard of a rental property in Morro Bay.

"I went down this rabbit hole with mushrooms, and I never came out," she said with a laugh. "It's been an amazing experience. I go to farmers' markets and take my daughter everywhere, ... and it's a great life for her."

Mushrooms slowly ate up the space in her backyard and garage. Luckily, when it was time to expand, Zunino had the money saved to purchase a place of her own in Morro Bay, one on a larger lot where she built a few greenhouses in the backyard and has a dedicated lab room and incubator.

click to enlarge SOLD Cleaning and packing a variety of oyster mushrooms, Rosa Zunino and her intern Nico Saiz get mushrooms ready for a restaurant customer on April 3. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • SOLD Cleaning and packing a variety of oyster mushrooms, Rosa Zunino and her intern Nico Saiz get mushrooms ready for a restaurant customer on April 3.

Part scientist, part farmer, part customer service rep, Zunino almost exclusively grows about 15 different oyster mushroom varieties, which she sells to local restaurants and at a handful of local farmers' markets.

"I've grown lots of different [mushrooms], but I've settled onto the ones that like my grow method, that last a while, that taste good," she said. "More and more people are getting into the health benefits, the flavor. If you've only ever eaten a button mushroom from a plastic container in a grocery store, then you're missing out."

Through trial and error, Zunino eventually found a cultivation technique that works for her—that's low impact, is in harmony with Morro Bay's climate, and needs little outside inputs to be successful. The irony, she said, is that she doesn't really do much of what she learned online. What she's learned over the last three years, she said with a laugh, is mostly what not to do.

"It's all been such a trip. I'm still kind of a little bit surprised and I'm just like, 'I can't even believe this is my life.' I grow mushrooms for a living," she said.

The mushrooms fruit in greenhouses that humidity is added to. Morro Bay, she said, is a great environment for them because of the natural ocean air and mild weather. But before they get to the greenhouses, those elephant-eared bunches start out in liquid form as mycelium on petri dishes in her lab. She describes mycelium as the roots of a mushroom.

"We're growing from the roots. We're taking roots, and in this case, this particular organism, if you have a tiny piece of the root, it will continue to grow," she said. "That is the heart of the fungus."

click to enlarge LITTLE GUY Morro Bay Mushrooms' products come in all shapes, sizes, and colors—like this Italian oyster mushroom that's dwarfed by its friends. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • LITTLE GUY Morro Bay Mushrooms' products come in all shapes, sizes, and colors—like this Italian oyster mushroom that's dwarfed by its friends.

She colonizes a couple of drops of liquid mycelium, and the result is eventually used to inoculate rye grain, which she sprinkles on the growing medium she uses—a wood base and wood pellets supplemented with alfalfa and water. It takes about three months to grow a new batch of mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms, she said, like the environment of her greenhouses and the humidity she gives them without the need for extras, such as heating or cooling the greenhouses, fertilizer, or pesticides.

There's no chemical runoff, she said. Her leftovers are pure, compostable material. Plus, she gets to produce a quality product that is super tasty.

"It's been the most epic journey of my life besides parenthood," she said. "This fungus, you know, has been in a lot of ways, our family's lifeline. It's provided a lot. But it also requires discipline."

That discipline includes harvesting the mushrooms when they're ready as well as getting up at 5 a.m. to pluck fungi for early morning farmers' markets like the Saturday one in front of SLO's Embassy Suites off Madonna Road. It can be a struggle first thing in the morning.

"But the second you get there, I'm hearing the tables go out and the tents go up, and I'm hearing people chatting in like three different languages. It's such a mood boost," Zunino said. "I feel so lucky. I can't even tell you." Δ

Editor Camillia Lanham is planning her next mushroom feast. Send food tips to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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