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Adventures in Mycology

Words // Pamela Hunt
Photos // Carlos Gallardo PhotographyDSC_7213-copy

Luna, a sturdy pit bull mix, and Derrick, a gangly adolescent Vizsla, raced up the trail, eager for whatever adventures they could find. Our group of nine slowly ascended the hill behind the dogs, pacing ourselves in the humid New England summer afternoon. Waiting for us in a small clearing stood our tour leader, clad in a porcini-colored t-shirt reading “All mushrooms are edible. Some only once.”

Along with a handful of amateur foragers and a homeopathic practitioner, I had joined one of the first “Fruits of the Forest” walks that MoTown Mushrooms led at the Hunter Farmstead in Waterbury. The wooded property stretches nearly 40 acres along Joiner Brook and the meadows beyond. Though based in Morristown (hence the moniker), the company has arranged with the farm’s owners to lead tours, plant outdoor beds, and more importantly to provide demonstrations; The energetic duo that runs the business, Jason Bednarz and his wife, Monica Gallardo, want to help mushroom lovers have their cake and safely eat it too by teaching them how to grow “wild” varieties.

The mycological adventure began as a hobby for Jason but bloomed into a full-blown business in 2013. When a tour member recounted a tale of shiitake-studded troughs taking over his bathroom when his interest in mushrooms first bloomed, Gallardo rolled her eyes and chuckled knowingly. When they first started growing, she said, “Our basement turned into a lab.”

Interest in mushrooms has grown in Vermont thanks to increased exposure to wild specimens at farmers’ markets and local grocery stores. Once thought to be nutritionally empty, these edible fungi are now known to provide many health benefits. “Mushrooms are great sources of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, many of them have incredible medicinal properties, like lion’s mane, which is known for improving memory and cognition and regenerating nerve tissue,” Gallardo explained. However, the bins of white button mushrooms with the occasional “exotic” cremini are no longer sating our increasingly sophisticated appetites. We want shiitakes! Give us chanterelles! Where are the morels?

Yet according to Ari Rockland-Miller, co-founder of Burlington-based TheMushroomForager.com, Americans as a whole tend to be wary when it comes to wild varieties. He leads tours in area woodlands, demonstrating how edible treasures can be found if one only knows where and how to look. Some dangers can be identified relatively easily. The ghostly white stem of the amanita, aka the destroying angel, foretells its lethal offering. But it takes a practiced eye to discern a deadly jack-o’-lantern from a delicious golden chanterelle. In fact, despite Rockland-Miller’s professed passion for these delicacies, he stands by the adage, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Misidentification poses too great of a risk.

MoTown also has moved into education, adding to their initial focus on growing for wholesale. Their main product, the Fungipail—a reusable five-gallon plastic bucket filled with a fertile substrate inoculated with spore—represents just one way the pair is teaching the public about beneficial fungi. They have also demonstrated at various festivals and schools in New England how to prepare logs filled with ‘shroom spawn and—as I learned on this afternoon—to build layered totem poles, which after months of patient waiting hold the promise of fruiting delectable, yet pricey, wild mushrooms.

But before Jason would teach us how to build our own growing kits, we first hunted truly feral specimens. The earthy, rich aroma of humus hung in the humid air, creating a greenhouse feel. We wandered through beds of yellow, pearl, and pink oyster mushrooms poking through pine needles like slightly misshapen, pastel-hued umbrellas. Hairy, white orbs of lion’s mane sprouted from decaying logs, straight out of a Dr. Seussian landscape. We gingerly harvested samples of the different species we found, some foragers filling their buckets more fully than others.DSC_7205-copy

We hauled our buckets back to the clearing to more closely examine our bounty. The MoTown canine mascots flopped to the ground in exhaustion after their romp through the forest. Bednarz flipped through his guidebook, helping to identify some of the noncultivated varieties we had discovered. Many turned out to be what experienced foragers call “LBMs,” or “little brown mushrooms”—most presenting no danger but offering little in the way of pleasurable eating. A handful of golden chanterelles and the gigantic burgundy tops of wine caps represented the only worthwhile wild edibles our newbie team harvested.

Hungry to start on my own mushroom-growing journey, I joined my fellow foragers around the work table. Slices of hardwood logs surrounded a cinder-block-sized bag of hen-of-the-woods spawn-filled substrate, which closely resembled moldy sawdust. Following Bednarz’ lead, I packed a thin layer of this crumbly substance between the log discs, then hammered nails into the wood at angles, toenailing the layers together into a four-tiered totem pole.

Despite my rudimentary hammer skills, my future mushroom farm held together as I loaded it into my car. Though I would need to wait a year for my project to bear fruit, I was already mentally scrolling through recipes as I drove back down the mountain road toward home.