East Texas Celebration to Festive Fungi and Our Favorite Fermented Fruit
Getting back to Houston last Thursday from a cold midweek trip to Ohio, I made a call up to Madisonville, Texas, to talk to the organizers of the Madisonville Mushroom Festival (www.texasmushroomfestival.com) about press passes for me and photographer (and daughter), Caroline Carruba, to cover the festival’s wine and cooking events for VintageTexas.com. I first spoke with Sharon Phelps who, in turn, directed me to (Father) Mike Barone, a local pastor and man with the final say in these matters.
Once we made connection, Father Mike seemed pleased to be getting PR for the event from someone from Houston, although he really did not know who I was [the newly but not so seriously proclaimed Czar of Texas Wine – See http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=1192]. I mentioned that if he wanted to check out my wine or press credentials [to make sure I was legit], he could go to my website. In response Father Mike said to me, “You know, I am a man of God and I will just take you at your word.” He followed by indicating that he would be at the festival information tent on Saturday morning where we should stop to get “media passes” to the event.
North on I-45 to Madisonville
The weekend came with a pleasant cool snap. Thursday in Houston was a record setting 92 degrees with that heavy humid air that smothers you like being under a wet blanket on a summer day. However, by Saturday morning, daybreak brought 59 degrees with a clear blue autumn sky embellished with slanting rays of yellow sun. The drive to Madisonville was a mere 90 minutes, and within an hour we were out of the flatland coastal plain and into rolling hills of sandy ochre soil and tall east Texas pines. As we drove farther on I-45, we knew we were close when we could see the sun cast a backlight over the shoulder of the gargantuan white statue of Sam Houston (www.roadsideamerica.com/story/7247), father of Texas independence, as he casually walked out of the tall dark green pines on the side of the highway. I would not have been surprised to hear his personal words of welcome to mushroom festival visitors, in the same manner that Big Tex welcomes Texas State Fair goers. It was simply a picture perfect day; the kind organizers of outdoor events pray for, but one for which they rarely plan.
Once in Madisonville, it was obvious that the town was a swarm of activity; vendors of all type with lines of people being served a diverse menu from mushroom fajitas to BBQ shrimp to many Texas battered and deep fried favorites – Corndogs, Twinkies and even Oreos; albeit, no wine pairings for the latter.
We made our way through the town searching for the information tent. Finally, we arrived and ask for Father Mike, where a pointing finger directed us to a rather large man with a smile of equal proportions. He greeted us by putting one arm around me, while stoutly pumping my other hand in a welcoming handshake. I felt like I was consumed by his greeting. In short order, we had our wine glasses and purchased a hand full of drink tickets. We proceeded into the tasting arena like warriors about to do battle by 10:45 am. Gosh, I love the smell of Cabernet in the morning!
We visited and tasted at several winery pouring stations. This might not seem like much of a grand occasion to celebrate; but, only a few short years ago, this land was dry land (for those outside of Texas, this means no purchases of alcoholic beverage, of any kind). But, it appeared from my vantage point that the locals in Madisonville had gotten the hang wine festival protocol all right – One ticket, one pour, taste and repeat. However, in true Texas fashion, there was a tap in the wine tasting area for purchase of beer, if you were not of the sort to want to appreciate the local wine.
From across the open space in the tasting grounds, we spotted two of the mainstays of the Texas wine world: Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo from Messina Hof Winery and Resort (www.messinahof.com) in Bryan, Texas. As usual, they beamed smiles and greeted us into their tasting booth for a taste of their crisp, umlauted Gewürztraminer, an agreeable sweet red called “Beau”, followed by their award-winning late harvest Riesling. A photo-op in front of their “vast acreage” of Texas vines could not be overlooked.
You might ask…Why Mushrooms? Why in Madisonville? These are good questions. Well, the legacy of mushrooms in Madisonville goes back to 1975. It started with the opening of a mushroom facility in the town by Ralston Purina. It later became Monterey Mushrooms (www.montereymushrooms.com) which now ships mushrooms worldwide from Madisonville and plays a vital role in the community.
Eight years ago, the city decided to stake their culinary fame to their local mushrooms and started the festival. A few years later, they figured that gourmet mushrooms needed a quaff of fermented juice to wash them down. This led to an invitation to Texas wineries to pour wines with the towns favorite Texas fungi; thus, giving birth to another Texas food and wine festival.
Gourmet Mushroom Cooking
We walked into a large white tent adjoining the wine tasting arena. It was the venue for the day’s cooking demos, all featuring what else…mushrooms. We spent the rest of the day cycling back and forth from the tent to the tasting grounds sampling wines and a variety of gourmet Texas toadstool creations. The one overriding thing that I learned is that Texas mushrooms go exceptionally well with Texas goat cheese (and a raft of other cheeses, as well). It seemed like just about every chef had a recipe made with heaping medley of mushrooms integrated with a large white brick of Texas goat cheese that was punctuated with rosemary, yellow or red tomatoes or basil.
We stopped only once to walk the isles of food vendors planted around the town square and were quickly overtaken by the heavy cholesterol-laden aromas carrying the message…”Eat me. Eat me. Eat me.”
We finally succumbed and bought two creations that looked something like a large batter-fried, segmented worm on a stick. Actually, they were [what else] a series of bulbous mushrooms, skewered and dipped in a thick batter with a dollop of Cajun spices and deep fried. Not the lightest of selections, and definitely not the healthiest of fare. However, in the words of Little Richard himself, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, they were so damn good that after a few bites, you just wanted to roll over and die [pun intended]!
More Wine Tasting
Back to the tasting arena a few pounds heavier, we stopped by several wineries to be greeted by new and old friends like Bill Rives from Fall Creek (www.fcv.com) and Bill Freidhof from Llano Estacado (www.llanowine.com). Bill Rives poured us Fallcreek’s reliably good, off-dry Chenin Blanc, Mission Cabernet Sauvignon and Ed Auler’s Sweet Red wine. Honestly, there were a lot of sweet wines poured at the mushroom festival, but that’s fine with me as there were lots of new Texas wine aficionados which tend to like sweeter wines. To be honest, I can find good things in sweet wines, if they are well made. The key is something that winemakers and dessert chefs know: Sugar acid balance.
Texas has many spicy dishes where a sweet white or red wine quenches the hefty heat of jalapenos, the sting of cayenne, or the pleasant zip of a tangy, sweet BBQ sauce. Texas seems to have especially bred a fancy for sweet red wines, and most Texas wineries offer them. Those like Ed’s Sweet Red or Messina Hof Beau have a pleasant balance of sweetness and acidity, similar to the Lambruscos that I consumed in graduate school many years ago. They perked my interest in wine and I realized then that I like wine better than most beers or hard liquors. I have since learned to appreciate many of the diverse aspects of wines from both established and immerging regions from around the world.
Llano Estacado poured us their easy drinking dry Signature White and a delicious semi-sweet Gewürztraminer (note: second good “G wine” from Texas that day). We also stopped by Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards (www.lospinosranchvineyards.com) to sample their interesting blush, a blend of juices from a red grape (Black Spanish) and a white grape (Muscat Canelli) and their dry red Meritage blend. But, it was at the booth for Pleasant Hill Winery (www.pleasanthillwinery.com) from Brenham, Texas where we hit upon our favorite wine of the day. It was their Blanc du Bois, a semi-sweet white wine made from grapes of the same name grown and harvested almost in our backyard on the Texas Gulf Coast. Blanc du Bois is a French American hybrid grape that can just about grow anywhere it wants in Texas. Winemakers had a time of it at first trying figuring out how to make Blanc du Bois into a palatable table wine. However, I think that in the past five years the Blanc du Bois wines in Texas have really come into their own. This one was crisp and clear with hints of sweet pear, peach and a whiff of engaging honeysuckle. We gave a collective “atta-boy/girl” for Bob and Jeannie Cottle at Pleasant Hill Winery.
Finishing with a Gourmet Flair
We wandered back into the tent for another go with gourmet mushroom cuisine and fell for Chef Eric Miller’s (College Station Hilton) Portabella mushroom pizza. In this case, the mushroom was not on the pizza; it WAS the pizza! The Portobello was first baked to soften its consistency, thereafter it was used as a substrate for a puree of tomato and shallots overlaid with cheese and fresh basil. Having found our wine of the day, we also found our chef’s creation of the day, as well.
Attendance at this year’s festival was plentiful, surely bolstered by the cool sunny day. The Mushroom Festival tee-shirts were sold out and there was a scramble for more wine glasses as people continued to register and come through the gate. A check of my watch and I was amazed that the day had gone so fast with us feasting on festive fungi and succulent grapey nectars of the favorite fruit of Texas.
A quick look at my Mushroom Festival menu card also showed evidence of my day’s culinary enjoyment….My greasy fingerprints!