Thursday, January 19, 2012

Everything Mushrooms Really Is!

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of visiting with Bob Hess, owner of Everything Mushrooms on Sevier Avenue near downtown Knoxville. The name says it all: dried mushrooms, mushroom art, books about mushrooms, mushroom growing kits, mushroom growing supplies and more. I found whole canned black truffles, truffle oil, and truffle-infused salt. (Note to foodies: gourmet salt is one of the top food trends of 2012, according to USA Today.) Bob is a charming and knowledgeable guy who kindly spent an hour discussing fungi with me, when he probably had plenty of more important things to do.

He was quick to explain that his company's primary business is producing and selling mushroom starter cultures for people who want to grow them. He does not sell fresh mushrooms. He only allows cultures to produce mushrooms in order to insure that all his products perform as expected. At any given time, he has around 20 different varieties of edible and medicinal mushrooms growing in his laboratory.

Mushroom cultivation differs in several ways from growing other types of food products. Fungi spend most of their lives as mycelium, a pale, hairlike growth that spreads through whatever type of organic matter the fungus is feeding upon. When conditions are right, the mycelium "fruits," producing the mushrooms that humans can harvest. The biological function of the mushroom is to produce and disperse the spores that will eventually grow into the next generation of fungi. Bob's job, in a nutshell, is to maintain cultures of the mycelium and provide them to growers in an appropriate form.

For example, one of the most popular mushrooms is shiitake. It grows on wooden logs, preferring white oak, but accepting a few other species. Freshly cut logs are inoculated with shiitake mycelium by drilling holes in the log and hammering in a wood peg with the mycelium from Bob's lab already growing in it. The opening is sealed with wax. After the log has been incoulated with pegs spaced about every six inches over its surface, it is left to incubate, usually for a year, in a shady, protected spot outside. The log can then be induced to fruit by various means, or allowed to fruit naturally during periods of mild, wet weather. One log can continue producing mushrooms for months, depending upon various factors.

These logs have been plugged with medicinal reishi mushroom mycelium, then sealed with red wax.

Everything Mushrooms produces growing kits for several types of mushrooms. These are not only great gifts but also provide a good way to experiment with mushroom growing before you take the plunge. Kits contain everything needed to produce a small harvest when you follow the included instructions.

Enoki mushrooms under cultivation
Depending upon how much room and time you have, it is possible to grow any variety of cultivated mushrooms at home. Most people, according to Bob, start with shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Common white button mushrooms and their relatives, crimini and portobella, are more finicky about their growth requirements, but can be produced at home, too. Other possibilities include maitake (hen-of-the-woods), blue, yellow and pink oyster mushrooms, beech mushrooms, garden giants and enoki.

Bob has begun an outdoor demonstration area where he hopes to grow several mushroom varieties this year. He showed me stacks of reishi and shiitake logs, and a small shaded greenhouse where he will be growing oyster mushrooms in plastic bags of wheat straw. I love the delicate flavor of oyster mushrooms, and plan to try this at home myself. With a little advice from Bob and the materials I need from his company, I feel confident of success.

Like any small business owner, Bob looks for new ways to grow his business and increase his customer base. Recently, he has branched out into producing the starter cultures for kombucha, a fermented beverage made from tea. This ancient beverage originated in Korea, but has spread worldwide due to its anti-aging and immune-boosting properties. It is easy to make at home, and requires about two weeks from start to finish. The starter culture, pictured below, is known as a "mushroom" to cooks, but it is actually a colony comprised of several types of bacteria and yeasts growing together.

Bob says he hopes to branch out into other types of starter cultures for fermented foods, such as those used for preparing soy sauce, miso, and kefir.

Home food growing can take on new dimensions when you add mushrooms and fermented foods to your repertoire.

For more information call Bob at 865-329-7566 or visit online.

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