Taste of Home

Abuelo’s Corn Tortillas offer an authentic bite of Mexico.

We can all grow mushrooms,” says Kevin Mitchell.  “And not just any mushrooms—we can grow some of the most nutritious and delicious mushrooms there are.”

Sixteen pairs of eyes and ears are listening closely, and most of the 16 people those eyes and ears belong to are also scratching notes on a pad, intent on capturing the key points of Mitchell’s steady flow of information and instructions.  Like Mitchell, they are enthusiastic about growing mushrooms, and they are looking to him to teach them how during this three-hour workshop on cultivating the Garden King Mushroom.

The Garden King, as its name suggests, is big, and grows well in gardens, explains Mitchell, who channels his mushroom passion into his Denman Island-based business, Key to Rise.  During the workshop, he presents a brief overview of mushroom science and growing techniques followed by a hands-on demonstration of how to grow the Garden King.  Within 90 minutes, the workshop has produced a 15-square foot mushroom bed made of fresh alder chips layered like a sandwich with Garden King spawn, spread out under a grapevine in farmer Maxine Rogers’ orchard.

Rogers will need to spray the bed with water every other day, and in 10 to12 weeks, if all goes well, she’ll have a bountiful crop of tasty mushrooms.  A two week dormant period (or seemingly dormant, because much is going on beneath the surface) will follow, and then there will be another flush, and so on every fortnight till the weather gets cold.  At that point, Rogers can cover it with more chips, leave it to overwinter, and expect more mushrooms next spring.

Mitchell invites everyone to grab a handful of the spawn, smell it, and get a good look at the mycelium—the delicate, almost invisible network of cobweb-like fibres that run through it.  Mycelium permeates all soil and, because it ‘eats’ by breaking down organic matter (and even stones) is instrumental in creating soil.  When we walk through a forest, we see the trees, but equally significant is the vast system of mycelium that runs below us, which the trees depend on.

The mushroom is the mycelium’s fruiting body.  “The mushroom is like the apple, but the mycelium is the tree,” says Mitchell.  “You can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions, just like any other tree.”

Mitchell knows how to do that.  He shares tips and tricks such as how to “tickle” the mushroom bed with a pitchfork to stimulate mycelial growth, how and when to persuade a reluctant mushroom bed to fruit with just one good watering, and how to use your initial bed as a starter for a second.  He answers questions about finding the best site for a mushroom bed, how big the mushrooms should be for harvesting, and how to cook them.

“What if we have too many ready at once?” someone asks.  Mitchell flashes a big smile from under his well-worn straw hat.  Clearly, he likes that idea.

“Oh, that definitely might happen,” he says enthusiastically, and goes on to describe the ins and outs of freezing and the pros and cons of drying the Garden Giant.  There seem to be few questions he can’t answer, sometimes citing recommendations from experts, but mainly telling stories from his own experience as a grower and picker (and eater) of mushrooms for some 20-odd years.

Mitchell’s interest in mushrooms has undergone a number of incarnations over these two decades.  He’s picked Pine, Chanterelle, Morel and other wild mushrooms in the mountains and forests of Vancouver Island; grown Shiitake, Oyster, Reishi, Matsutake, Shaggy Mane and more than a dozen more types of cultivated mushrooms; he’s founded an innovative mushroom-growing co-op, operated a high-tech growing lab, dabbled in “nutraceuticals” (medicinal mushrooms), and sworn off mushrooms almost entirely until forming Key to Rise last summer.

“I’ve been up and down a lot of learning curves,” he says.  “Over the years I’ve taught at least 60 workshops and I think this is the most useful thing for me to do.  The kits are a fun way to get started but if people really want to grow mushrooms, a bit of education will go a long way.  People can buy a Shiitake log [inoculated with Shiitake spawn] but if they don’t understand what to do with it, they take it home and kill it.  Then they feel pretty silly about spending that amount of money on a log.”

Through Key to Rise, Mitchell offers workshops on growing different types of mushrooms—one workshop on the “raw wood chip” varieties such as the Garden King, and another on log-drilling, which is the technique for Shiitake, Oyster, and Reishi mushrooms—and on picking mushrooms in the wild.  He also sells ready-made mushroom grow-kits that people can take home to harvest a good-sized crop of Oyster mushrooms in just a few weeks, but his main focus is education.

“In this age when we’re realizing we need to develop more sustainable and self-sufficient ways of feeding ourselves, people need to know about mushrooms,” he says.

Mushrooms tend to be a bit of mystery, he says.  “They aren’t a fruit, they aren’t a vegetable.  They appear sporadically, or not at all, and then all at once.  They look different than anything else.  That is part of what got me interested in mushrooms in the first place.  But once I learned more, I realized they are like other plants—once you understand their growth parameters you can cultivate them.

“I love teaching because I watch people soak in the information and I can see them go ‘ah-ha’ as they come to understand how mushrooms grow,” he says.

“It’s great to see how quickly they pick up the knowledge they need, and to know they are on their way to cultivating, picking and eating the freshest mushroom they’ve ever had.  And I love the way mushrooms work with a permaculture approach that utilizes natural seasonal settings and readily available natural materials,” he adds.  In particular, he says, the Red Alder, a common Vancouver Island tree that some people consider akin to a weed, is a cornucopia of mushroom potential.

“I have to give credit to the Red Alder.  It’s incredibly prolific here and is the perfect wood to grow so many types of mushrooms on.  This tree is a gift; we should use it.”

Mitchell has always found mushrooms fascinating, but it was about 20 years ago that he first let mushrooms change his life.

“It was mushrooms that brought me to BC,” he explains, his eyes lighting up with the memory.  “I was tree planting in Alberta and coming off a contract when I heard that you could make a lot of money harvesting Pine mushrooms in BC.  So four of us piled into a vehicle and came to Vancouver Island.  We proceeded to comb the countryside in all the wrong places looking for mushrooms.  After a while my three friends gave up and left.  The next day I found two things: I was browsing in the Salvation Army store and found this mushroom belt buckle—you know the one!”  (Yes, like everyone on Denman who knows Mitchell, I know his funky mushroom belt buckle.)

Mitchell continues: “I also found my first Pine mushroom near Bowser.  So I stayed, and I found a lot more mushrooms and ended up making a decent living.  So I came back the next summer, and after a couple of years of Pines I definitely had mushrooms on the brain.”

Mushroom spores.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In 1997 he moved to Denman Island, homesteading a piece of land and starting a family, all the while with mushrooms on the brain.  At that time one-third of the island was slated to be logged, much to the dismay of almost all Islanders.  Mitchell joined a group that was looking for a way to buy some of the still-intact Douglas fir forest.  They put together a business plan that included sustainable forestry, limited development and non-timber forest products—including mushrooms.  The initiative was ambitious and demanding, and didn’t succeed, but it got people talking about mushrooms on Denman Island.

In the meantime, Mitchell was cultivating Shiitakes on Alder logs on his property with his partner, selling to friends and at farmers’ markets.  Perhaps because he’d stirred up local interest in mushrooms, he soon found himself a partner with three others in a new venture called the Cultivated Forest Mushroom Cooperative.  This initiative went the high-tech route, with state-of-the-art growing facilities that looked a lot more like a science lab than a forest floor, and a sophisticated business plan that included both edible mushrooms and nutraceuticals—mycelium with high medicinal value such as Cordyceps.

It was an exciting and demanding project.  “We were learning to take the mushroom through every phase from the petri dish to grow logs,” says Mitchell.  But it was also an innovative and risky venture facing a lot of unknowns.  After four years, the co-op team made the difficult decision to close the operation.

“It was just too tricky to be a wholesaler of a short-shelf-life product on a Gulf Island,” says Mitchell.  For a few years after that he limited his mycofilia (mushroom-loving) to picking wild mushrooms for himself, his friends, and family.  But it didn’t take long for him to reconnect with his passion for sharing his love of all things mushroom, resulting in Key to Rise.

There is, after all, much to admire in the world of mushrooms.  To get a sense of just how much, we can turn to the work of mushroom guru Paul Stamets, author of six books on mushrooms and self-proclaimed “mycelia messenger.”

“When the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago and coalesced out of stardust, the first organisms on land were fungi.  Plants followed 600 million years later,” says Stamens.  When asteroids hit the earth, wiping out up to 90 per cent of species, 250 million years ago and again 65 million years ago, it was the fungi which best survived and repopulated the globe.   All life has evolved in close relationship with fungi, he says, and depends on it.

“Fungi… construct the food web.  They break down plant, animal and minerals into soil.  So these are the great soil magicians of nature,” says Stamens in the article Going Underground, in The Sun Magazine, February 2008.  “The biggest organism in the world is a 2,000-year old mycelia mat that covers 2,200 acres in eastern Oregon.”

But there is much more to fungi than that: fungi provide medicine (antibiotics such as penicillin) and have been found to have the capacity to clean up toxins such as oil spills, polluted water, plastics, dioxins and nerve gas agents.  That is why Stamets says that fungi can help save the world.

Stamets goes further: mycelium, he suggets, is the earth’s natural Internet, a neurological landscape that infuses all soils and connects with all life.

“They are aware that you are there.  As you leave your footsteps, the mycelia reach up and respond by grabbing newly available broken twigs or sticks.  The mycelia are sentient,” he claims.

Mitchell draws inspiration from all this, but remains steadfastly down to earth (pun intended) in his approach.  “I want to help people grow mushrooms,” he states, simply.

As the workshops winds up, participants are heading to their cars with Garden Giant spawn, bags of wood chips, photocopied instructions and pages of notes.  They’re exchanging phone numbers and making plans to get together for wood-chipping parties.  As I head off with a pre-made Oyster Mushroom grow-bag, the last words I hear from Mitchell are, “We can all feed ourselves.  Let’s do it!”

What would you do if you couldn’t find the kind of tortillas you wanted in the grocery store—pure corn without additives or preservatives?

If you are like the Miller family, you start making your own, and turn your kitchen experiments into a successful home-based family business making organic, hand-pressed tortillas.

That’s just what Harvey and Jesus Miller did with daughter Lisa, son-in-law Jorge, and son Lin.  And along the way, they found a market of health conscious consumers longing for an authentic taste of Mexico.

“We’re not exactly a secret,” is the first thing Harvey Miller says about the two-year old company they named Abuelo’s, meaning Grandfather in Spanish.  Instead, they’re a lot like the store-front location at the corner of Coleman and Bates Road—a truly pleasant surprise when you find them.

“We came from Mexico, all of us, five years ago.  I had retired there,” explains Harvey. However, two growing children meant Harvey and his wife Jesus needed to give serious thought to the kind of opportunities they wanted to provide to their kids.  They were especially keen to have the children experience the Canadian school system.  So, the decision was made to return to Vancouver Island, where had Harvey spent part of his childhood and had his first career as a mill owner.

Once settled in the Valley, the family started looking for the kind of corn tortillas they were used to in Mexico.  They couldn’t find them—at least not without preservatives and additives.  So, they ended up buying the corn masa flour, building a traditional wooded tortilla press (think two eight inch square blocks of wood with a handle to squish a ball of dough) and making their own.  This was actually a big deal.

“Even in Mexico it’s rare to make your own tortillas,” says Lisa. “It’s like home-made bread.”  Some people do it, but most people go to the tortilla-maker every morning to buy fresh made tortillas that they eat that day.  The tortillas are made with fresh flour, and like all fresh food will spoil without refrigeration.

None of this stopped Jesus from figuring it out all out. Pretty soon she was making tortillas all of the time, much to the delight of family and friends.

Then fate took over.  “The Road Runner Café became available,” says Harvey, adding that the family decided to purchase the business and make authentic Mexican food, along with traditional Canadian breakfast foods.

At first, customers were a little uncertain about the Mexican fare, especially the tortilla dishes.  This was not the Tex-Mex food most Canadians grew up on. There were certainly no hard-shelled tacos on the menu—that’s an American interpretation of Mexican food almost unheard of in Mexico.  However, customers quickly came around.

“People were wanting to take tortillas with them,” says Harvey. “It wasn’t long before people were coming in just to buy the tortillas.

“Vancouver Island has so many people that have experience in Mexico, and one of the comments we started getting was, ‘These taste just like the ones we got in Mexico’,” he adds.

With an apparently ready-made market available, the Millers did what any sensible business person would—they developed packaging with the help of ABC Printing and started selling pre-packaged tortillas out of the Café.  Jesus took a picture of her father, a Mexican cattle rancher, wearing his cowboy hat and Photoshopped a chef’s hat onto his head and created a logo. The picture of Grandpa Gonzalo was also the inspiration for their company name Abuelo’s.

“Bit by bit sales started to get brisk,” says Harvey.  Edible Island started carrying their product for sale, increasing sales and demand.  From a business perspective, this would be great. The problem was the family was basically running two businesses themselves. The Café was open from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm daily, and then they would spend the rest of the day, usually until 10:00 pm, making tortillas and doing kitchen prep for the restaurant.

This went on for about two years, when one of the Café patrons expressed an interest in buying the business.   “It was the perfect timing for us to focus on making tortillas,” says Harvey.

That decision to focus on making tortillas necessitated some important decisions about just what kind of product Abuelo’s was going to be.  The Millers had the option of going to a fully automated production facility, where all the tortillas would be made by machine.  However, Jesus quickly decided that wouldn’t be good enough.

A machine would require a dryer, stiffer dough than the hand-pressed recipe Jesus had developed in her own kitchen and served at the Café.  To her, the taste and texture of the machine product was too different from what they had been making by hand.

“My mother always refused to compromise the quality of our food,” says Lisa. “Everything was fresh.”  In fact, Jesus held firm to the belief if she wouldn’t buy it herself, then she wouldn’t sell it to anyone else.

Lisa at the Farmer's Market.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“It wasn’t very long in the production that we said our tortillas are hand-pressed,” says Harvey.  That means one of the family takes pre-weighed pieces of dough, puts them on the press between two layers of plastic, takes the handle and presses down to create a flat tortilla.  The process is relatively simple, but takes some body weight behind the press to get the right thickness and a lot of dexterity to peel the uncooked tortilla off the plastic without tearing the delicate dough.

They also made the product organic and certified gluten-free.  Corn is, of course, gluten-free naturally.  And a basic tortilla recipe is just flour and water.  However, as anyone with food allergies knows, it’s not the product that might be the problem but cross-contamination.  For anyone with Celiac’s disease, even gluten residue from a press used for both wheat flour and corn flour tortillas can trigger the gut’s immune system and cause severe pain.  It was a common problem the Millers came across when running the Café, in addition to soy and dairy allergies.

“Before we even moved in, we washed the floor and walls and painted to make sure it was gluten-free, and now we’re certified by the Celiac Society (Victoria Chapter),” says Harvey.  “There’s not much more we can do to improve.”

The product certainly speaks for itself, especially during in-store demonstrations and at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market.  During demonstrations, the Miller’s press fresh dough using the same tortilla press as in their production facility and then cook fresh tortillas on a griddle.  The only difference between the demo product and the packaged product is how they’re cooked.  The production facility uses a commercial grill, and the hand-pressed tortillas are placed on a conveyer belt to be cooked on one side and then the other.  Either way, the end result is a soft, chewy tortilla good for anything from a traditional quesadilla to a peanut butter and banana sandwich wrap.

“We’re not sales people,” says Harvey. “The tortillas sell themselves for the most part.”

However, they are educators, and Lisa loves nothing more than talking to clients about what’s in Abuelo tortillas, how they’re made, and what you can do with them.  Take for example the fact that Abuelo’s tortillas can be bought made out of white or blue corn. For most locals used to seeing only yellow corn, the blue sometimes catches them by surprise.   In Mexico there are far more varieties of corn available on the market, including a blue corn that can be ground into flour.  The end product is full of natural antioxidants (like any other blue or purple fruit or vegetable), has more protein, less starch and is good for diabetics.

Then there’s the calcium hydroxide included in the ingredients on their packaging. Doesn’t exactly sound natural, does it?  Well, corn flour is made from maize (or corn) cooked in water that includes ash or lime.  The process is called nixtamalization and it goes back thousands of years.  Somehow, somebody figured out that when you added ash to the cooking water you made the corn more nutritious, and helped prevent diseases like pellagra (a vitamin deficiency) and kwashiorkor (a protein deficiency).  All the ash—today calcium hydroxide—is washed off after cooking and before grinding.  However, it has to be included on the label because it’s part of making the corn flour.

And finally there’s chia, another authentic influence from Mexico and one of Jesus’ many experimentations in the kitchen.  Chia is a member of the mint family, and is an excellent source of essentially fatty acids.  The benefits of this seed include anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants and other sources of nutrients.  You can buy Abuelo’s tortillas with chia, which holds in moisture and makes for a more flexible tortilla good for wrapping. “Chia is a new product here but it’s been used in Mexico forever,” says Lisa.  “I remember my grandma using chia in lemonade. There’s nothing better on a hot day.”

And with that reminiscing, Lisa comes back to the very reason that got them started in the tortilla business in the first place.  “We’re all proud of our roots and our culture, and to share our history and our traditions, especially through food,” she says.  “It first started because we needed something to eat without extra, weird things added to our food.”

Abuelo’s Tortillas are available locally at Edible Island, Seeds Natural Market, the Purple Onion Delicatessen and the Comox VAlley Farmers’ Market.  For info visit www.abueloscorntortillas.com.

One Response to Taste of Home

  1. I love these and I’m so glad Healthy Way in Campbell river is selling them! My favorite are the chia ones!
    Thank you for what you guys are doing!