It is raining outside, but sheltered in the glassed kitchen, around the wooden table of the Gourmet Mushroom farm, the chefs are bustling around in a joyful atmosphere. The menu starts with a creamy velouté of oyster mushrooms with an emulsion of milk and chestnut oil. Then comes the vacherin Mont d’Or with truffles, a cheese straight from the Jura, the region where chef Franck Page grew up. The chef left the kitchen of Hotel Phoenicia for the day to prepare this meal all about mushrooms. The main dish, consists of a fish cooked with a Thai marinade, coconut milk and sesame oil with onions, carrots, broccolis, lemongrass and ginger, along with a mushroom fricassee. Last but not least, comes the unctuous crème brulée, caramelized on the spot, before being served in mini pans. Vanilla, sugar, cream, seared oyster mushrooms, and mushroom powder melt with every bite. At the farm, Julien Khoury decided to build a kitchen that would highlight the versatility of the mushroom: the wooden pallets where products were stocked became the structure and the plastic bags were recycled as hosepipes. From pizza, pasta or salad toppings, mushrooms now make up the bun of a vegetarian burger, a sweet and sour fricassee with sesame oil, brown sugar, ginger and soya sauce on a steamed white rice, a dish stuffed with rice, almond milk and parmesan, or simply served with a pinch of salt, pepper, garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. Recipes are shared on social media as well as during farmer markets, fairs and days at the farm when Julien pairs up with chefs who exalt his product. At first, his mushroom powder was improvised with an artisanal method removing humidity from seven different mushroom varieties on a stove. The drying system was later perfected with a specialized company and the recipe fine-tuned and tasted for a year before hitting the shelves of grocers along with the fresh mushrooms, as well as becoming a key ingredient of sauces for some five hundred restaurants across the country and abroad.
One ton of exotic mushrooms monthly
To visit the farm in the humid season, one needs to be armed with an umbrella. We strolled through the alleys where button and Portobello mushrooms stood face to face. The latter emerges in only a few days and grows fast, in a cool shelter where ideal conditions of humidity, luminosity and temperature are ensured. The farm does not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers but only the substrate enriched with compost: the mushrooms are organic, rich in protein and loaded up to more than 90% with water. The chef explains to us that button mushrooms should not be peeled and that their pinkish colour on the inside when fresh, becomes whiter as they mature. The only time when peeling can occur is for the preparation of a carpaccio, seasoned with olive oil and fleur de sel. A little further, shiitake mushrooms, from ‘take’ meaning mushroom in Japanese and ‘shii’ the Castanopsis tree on the trunk of which the tubercula prospers in the shadow, are facing grey, pink and golden oysters. These exotic varieties conquered chefs rapidly and from five blocks of substrate at the start, the production grew to a ton of these mushrooms every month. The farm continues to introduce new varieties such as Maitake or Hericium which takes the shape of a delicate coral, and has numerous benefits. Julien Khoury’s passion for the cultivation of mushrooms grew when in 2015 his neighbor Jean Chamoun suggested he join him in reviving the farm. After his studies in Miami and several years working in the field of hospitality management between Lebanon and North Africa, this new daring project tempted him. Since then, the production of mushrooms skyrocketed and individuals have begun to make up a new clientele along restaurants and hotels in Beirut, Dubai or Doha. The products of the farm can be found at grocer’s shops or through the delivery service of Gourmet Mushroom. On the green hills of Byblos, nowadays fifteen varieties of mushrooms have elected their new homes which will soon also become a domain where works of art and a gourmet restaurant highlight the mushroom in its varied shapes and flavours.
Article originally published in L’Officiel Levant, February-March 2019 Issue