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Boston Globe Food Section

His crop isn't pretty, but it tastes great

AMHERST -- Wm Levine's search for a high-value crop led him to smut. That's the word often used to describe an unattractive fungus called Ustilago maydis, which maize farmers in the United States have gone to great lengths to banish from their fields.

To the unschooled eye, the fungus -- also called by its Aztec name, huitlacoche -- looks like black and gray tumors bubbling up inside the kernels of corn. Levine, who has two acres of corn under cultivation here, all of it intentionally infected with huitlacoche spores, is selling the fungus at some local farmers' markets. It has been prized by Mexican cooks since ancient times, and Levine is hoping it becomes the next big thing on US restaurant tables.

Jim Fahey, chef at the Forest Cafe in Cambridge, likes to have huitlacoche on his menu but can't always find a supplier. It's hard to describe the taste, he says, because it doesn't fall into any familiar categories. ''It's one of those things you're not sure if you even like it," says Fahey. ''But all of a sudden it's gone, and you say, 'I must like it.' "

Others call the taste earthy, musty, inky, and slightly sweet.

Levine, 49, began growing things during summers spent on a dairy farm in Vermont. The Westchester County, N.Y., native works as a nurse practitioner at a community clinic in Western Mass. He changed his name years ago from William to Wm. His resume is varied, to say the least. He earned a degree in agriculture from Cornell, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, helped set up farmers' markets in Manhattan, earned a business degree, and traveled the world for global management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, advising others on how to make small-scale agriculture profitable.

Now living in Shutesbury with his wife, Polly Wagner, and their two children, Levine landed on his own ''high value" crop -- or at least what he hopes will be. He learned that the Amherst Conservation Department controls about 200 acres of farmland available for a nominal fee to people committed to keeping it in agriculture. Last year he set up a home lab where he could cultivate the spores, which he got from University of Illinois professor Jerald Pataky, whose work on eradicating ''corn smut" turned into a curiosity about the recipes and cultures of those who don't see it as a potential blight.

When he started out 20 years ago, explains Pataky, one of the first things he had to do was replicate the growth of the fungus he was trying to fight. He developed the technique of squirting a solution with suspended spores directly down the silk of each ear of corn. The only problem was it worked too well. ''What turned out to be a failure for screening for the disease turned out to be an excellent way to grow huitlacoche," said Pataky on the phone recently. He has advised several huitlacoche growers around the country.

Huitlacoche has been ''treasured since pre-Columbian times," writes Rick Bayless in ''Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen." During the rainy season in Mexico, the Chicago restaurateur explains in his cookbook, marketgoers buy ears of corn with the huitlacoche attached. At his restaurant Topolobampo, he always features one dish made with the fungus, and ''folks clamor for the stuff -- something I certainly never predicted."

One typical Mexican dish mixes a filling of huitlacoche with poblano chili peppers, onion, garlic, and tomato for spooning into warm corn tortillas. You can also make huitlacoche quesadillas.

Last year, Levine's harvest was limited and experimental. Tu Y Yo, a Mexican restaurant in Somerville, was his test kitchen. This year, Prose in Arlington and Casa Romero in Boston have bought huitlacoche from him.

Levine's toils in the field began in May. He staggered the planting over nine weeks to maximize the duration of production. His low-tech operation uses only a couple of hand-operated implements. To infect the rows of corn, Levine uses a syringe designed for injecting medicine into large animals. It is attached to a small hose that leads to a plastic milk container dangling at his side. As he goes up and down the rows of corn, he squirts spore solution into each ear. It takes a little more than two weeks for the fungi to start taking shape.

Levine's initial investment was $10,000. He estimates that his entire crop (at $15 per pound) would retail for about $160,000. But he knows the market isn't there yet for that kind of return. He'll be happy if he breaks even.

What motivates a grower whose crop hasn't yet caught on?

''I just had to do it. I love mushrooms, I like the mad scientist component, the new crop angle, and it tastes great," he says. It's all part of what he calls ''chasing the dream" -- to see if a one-man operation can make a profit from agriculture. And beyond that, he says, ''I'll be able to claim that I'm the 'smut king,' because nobody else is crazy enough to do this."

Huitlacoche is available at the Farm School of Athol stand at farmers' markets in Copley Square (Tuesdays) and Boston Public Market on Old Northern Avenue Bridge (Thursdays), or go to www.huitlacoche.biz.  

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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