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On the trail of mushrooms July 10, 2005 - mainetoday.com By N.L. ENGLISH, Associated Press
SCARBOROUGH (AP)- After 8,000 years of Chinese medicine, and a few Western scientific studies, authorities agree that the powers of mushrooms are more than legend. Fortunately, they also feed us deliciously. Biting into a grilled, fresh porcini should not be missed.
Chanterelles, simply saut?ed in butter, make a fine side dish for grilled meat, and mushrooms like Hen of the Woods can stand in for meat.
The Maine mushroom business relies on two methods: wild harvesting and cultivation.
Maine's forests are haunted by foragers from early spring to late fall, people who have learned the secret relationships of mushrooms to trees, who know to look in a burned-over patch of forest for a special crop of morels in the spring or among the beech trees, oaks and pines for other symbiotic species.
Rick Tibbets, a forager from Scarborough who supplies restaurants with wild mushrooms, said the largest part of the mushroom life cycle is underground, in a root structure called mycelium.
When the earth is 56 degrees, the fruiting of those fine, white roots can start. Mushrooms are that fruit.
Sometimes, Tibbets said, there is no mushroom crop, because the earth hasn't provided what a species needs. The porcini, or boletus edulis, didn't show up in 2004, he said, for that reason.
Others reappear year after year, in a fairy ring that expands annually, spreading out in a circle as the mycelium grows outward from it original spore. Some fairy rings are hundreds of years old.
But mushrooms aren't waiting out there just so we can find them and eat them.
"Its job is to decay," said Candice Heydon, owner, with her husband, Dan, of Oyster Creek Farm, a mushroom cultivating and wild foraging business in Damariscotta. "If we didn't have it we'd be buried in debris."
Heydon uses 4-foot lengths of hardwood logs, set out in her woods, as the "beds" for her mushroom farm, but she can't just plant with a seed. Instead she takes the mushroom spores, tiny little organisms, and feeds them potato agar in a petri dish kept at the right temperature.
Then the agar is cut up and mixed with rye that's been sterilized, until it grows some more. After that Heydon feeds it with sterilized wooden dowels, and when they are well saturated, they go into holes drilled in her logs.
A year later she can begin harvesting her crop.
She grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms this way, selling them at farmers' markets in Boothbay Harbor, Damariscotta, Camden and Brunswick. She also sells her oysters to the Whole Grocer in Portland, Royal River Natural Foods in Yarmouth and Morning Glory in Brunswick.
After three or four years, the now-decayed logs fall into the ground, and another set takes its place.
Heydon also buys mushrooms from foragers, and this year there have been a few who have had some luck finding morels, a prized brown to tan mushroom.
Those she can sell for $32 a pound; they make a sublime meal, the simpler the better to enjoy their earthy flavor.
In Newport, two hours north of Portland on Route 2, Andrew Smith is harvesting different types of oyster mushrooms and Lion's Mane or hericium mushrooms, as well as shiitakes.
He sells them at the Portland Farmer's Market in Monument Square, which runs every Wednesday through the summer.
A Lion's Mane mushroom is like a furry snowball, about the size of a fist, Smith said, and Pearl oysters are clusters of mushrooms that resemble a bouquet, with sizes ranging from that of a quarter's diameter to 10 inches across.
"They're all teeming with medicinal compounds," he said.
At 24, Smith has been cultivating mushrooms on mixtures of sawdust in greenhouses for just nine months, after he wrote what he called a "killer business plan" and came up with the financing.
Smith's focus is on the nutrients. His lab is working with 60 or so strains of hybridized mushroom spores he just brought back from Shanghai, China, after a conference there.
"I eat mushrooms three times a day," Smith said. He claims he didn't have a cold this winter, even though he has a 2-year-old child in his house who hosts many playdates.
Smith extolled the polysaccharides in mushrooms, a nutrient that feeds white blood cells and helps them ward off bacterial infections.
Research on the potential of mushrooms to ward off the growth of tumors is under way at the National Institutes of Health, according to a research paper by Paul Stamets in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.
Stamets, who runs the mushroom cultivating and educational business Fungi Perfecti in Washington, lists B complex and D vitamins (in mushrooms grown with sunlight), potassium, and enzyme inhibitors as other praiseworthy nutrients found in the low calorie, nutritious mushrooms.
USE EXTREME CAUTION
But of course, it is not advisable to run into the woods and pick yourself a dinner of mushrooms if you don't know what you are doing, because some mushrooms are fatally poisonous. Heydon said they work slowly to destroy your liver. "By the time you realize what's going on, it's too late," she said.
Asian pickers mistook a poisonous American mushroom for their familiar straw mushrooms, and several were killed after eating them in California.
Even the weird-looking morel can trick pickers, because of its close cousin the false morel.
This coral-like, rounded mushroom is always hollow and never reddish, as one man Heydon met recently had found out. He'd been very sick from eating the false morel, solid and reddish, though fortunately its poison is not deadly.
Heydon recommends people try a small serving of any new mushroom first, just to be safe. Some people can develop hives from shiitakes.