This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few months ago I had some serious fungi in my bathroom. And unlike the time it appeared, grey and speckled, in the dark dank bathroom of my old rat-trap Brooklyn apartment, I was thrilled. This time it wasn't mildew, it was oyster mushrooms.
My apartment is certainly the best place I've lived in during my adult life, but it doesn't get a ton of light. I have a mint plant in the one window that gets some sun, but otherwise my gardening options are limited. So when Fab.com had a sale on mushroom cultivation kits from The Imaginary Farmer, I bought one, choosing the Hantana Phoenix Oyster kit.
The Imaginary Farmer kits caught my eye because they promised a more hands on experience than the other kit I had bought last year, which was an already inoculated pressure-cooked substrate. With that, I didn't have to do much beyond mist it to get it to grow, but I didn't really learn that much either. This kit required me to assemble the environment for the spawn myself.
Reading the booklet that came with the kit, I realized I would be assembling a war in a bag. A type of microscopic war I was rather familiar with given my experiments in wild yeast ciders and exploration of the role of microfauna in human health.
I've often been a bit amused by straw-man rich anti-organic agriculture writings that accuse advocates of sustainable agriculture of being Luddites desirous of dragging us all back into a miserable 14th-century peasant past. The reality is that most modern farms that are part of this movement utilize methods that didn't exist until recently. The modern sustainable farmer is more likely to own pipettes and beakers than they are to own scythes (not that there is anything wrong with scythes).
While humans have been consuming mushrooms for a very long time, cultivating mushrooms is newer, perhaps dating to the late 1700s. Many methods used today date to the 1970s, when certain people were very interested in cultivating err...certain "magic" mushrooms. Even to this day, an innocent cultivator of culinary mushrooms is likely to wade through a lot of material of the more psychedelic persuasion, which is credit to the fact that these people did a lot of the pioneering work in indoor growing out of necessity (similarly a lot of stuff used in indoor growing of vegetables can credit marijuana growers). Culinary and "magic" mushrooms are not the only options though, it is also possible to grow many important medicinal mushrooms like reishi.
The method in the Imaginary Farmer kit used oyster-mushroom inoculated grain, which was barley. This led to some question from gluten-free friends about whether it was safe for them. Honestly, I have no idea, but it would be interesting to study. For the rest of the substrate I used coffee grounds and sawdust. I was lazy and just used tap water for everything even though you are not supposed to because of the chlorine.
Did I mention this was a war? A war between the things I wanted to grow, which are mushrooms, and the biodiverse bouquet of ubiquitous other flora and fauna in the air, my breath, the sawdust, my hands... pretty much everything. My job to to give my team the advantage, but introducing as little of the other little folks as possible into my growing environment. I kept my hands clean with rubbing alcohol and the spawn sold by the Imaginary Farmer was selected to be resistant to hydrogen peroxide, which allowed me to use that to clean the sawdust. I put that all in a special mushroom-growing bag that had a filter-vent. And then I left it in my cupboard in the dark for awhile. And eventually it started to look like tempeh with a nice white mycelium binding the substrate into a block, which is the real "body" of the mushroom creature.
The bad thing here for mushroom growing about my apartment is I have central heating, which makes it really really dry. So I put the block in my shower window, cutting a small growing hole and then covering the rest. I misted them in the morning and at night when I got home from work and suddenly one morning they appeared!
The cool thing about this variety of oyster mushroom, which is a clone of a mushroom the company found interesting, is that in its early stages it has this salmon egg-like "tears."
Otherwise they aren't very photogenic. Some visitors called them "creepy." They got a bit more photogenic as they grew and I opened up another hole to start a new fruiting body (that's the actual mushrooms). I was really happy with my results. I was keeping a nice humid environment and my apartment temp tends around 50-62F.
The other things are terrariums I made in a Dabble class that ended up not doing very well.
I had to harvest them a little earlier than I wanted because I went on a trip, but they kept well in a paper bag in the fridge, though some dried out a little.
I cooked some of them with a steak I made and used the rest for a Viking themed party. For that I cooked them in smoked duck fat with some bog myrtle I got in Montreal, then cooked some lingonberries in duck fat with birch syrup, and served on a sourdough rye crisp with a bit of seaweed, cured duck breast, and wild boar, and shavings of getöst.
Photo by Jen Moran
They were really excellent in flavor and not at all like anything I've had from a store. They had a faint funkiness, which as a fish sauce lover, I welcomed, as well as the fantastic umami punch that characterizes the best mushrooms. If you don't eat meat, they can add a meatiness to dishes, but if you do they somehow manage to make meat even more "meaty" and flavorful.
Sadly the next few weeks were busy and while the block continued to fruit a bit, I neglected it and they dried up. The death knell was on a nice warm(er) day I left the window open and then the temperature dropped 30 degrees while I was out at dinner (thanks Chicago). When I came home the mushrooms had turned black and they shriveled up. It hasn't fruited since, but I might try "restarting" it by soaking it in water, even though that's kind of a crapshoot. I also wanted to try another variety and maybe other more attractive methods (like logs) or methods that could be used on the farm.
So when I saw a class on Meetup.com by the Chicago Permaculture Meetup's Kevin Hovey, I signed up. It was at the Stone Soup Coop, a place that definitely feels like what I imagine the 70s were like.
We went over different varieties (I want to try the almond agaricus, which is supposed to taste a bit nutty) and methods we could use from logs to bags to "terrariums." I'd love to use the logs on the farm and the terrariums in my apartment, particularly if I could use a pretty bell jar. Kevin talked a bit about how he wants to build a lab so he can get the kind of sterility in a filtered hood that really gives the mushroom cultures and spores an advantage.
He also talked a bit about getting your own spores and cultures. He gathered some local Chicago oyster mushrooms from a tree and cultured them. We used slow cookers to pasteurize brown rice bran substrates (gluten-free this time!) in jars and then used a homemade hood and needles to inoculate a variety of cultures and spores, which we got to take home. I have them in my cabinet at home and hopefully I will see some mycelium running soon, which incidentally is the name of a book by Paul Stamets that I've been reading. I also should probably pick up his more academic tome Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. He also has a popular TED talk.
I took a mycology class when I was in school in Sweden, but it was on forestry pests and I learned more about killing than growing them. But really the more I learn about this subject, the more I realize that there is so much that humans don't know about mushrooms. For example, only a few people know how to cultivate morels (I'd love to order some pre-inoculated trees for the farm) and black truffles. No one knows how to cultivate the prized matsutake, with its heavenly pine-forest aroma.
But these mysteries are certainly part of the appeal. And for the matsutake, even if you could grow it, would it really be the same? It is a mushroom defined by the ecosystem of the pine forest, with its flavors and aromas you can't get in a plastic bag. Wild mushrooms have a distinct terroir that many cultivated mushrooms can lack. For example the chaga I have in my cupboard task incredibly like the birch they came from, but you can hope that mushrooms grown in a bag don't taste like a bag. Growing outdoors in logs might allow me to cultivate a greater terroir by selecting different types of logs.
Either way, I've had a great deal of fun so far with mushrooms without even getting high and I'm looking forward to learning more. Have any of your grown mushrooms? What are your favorite resources and varieties?