Fungus Fun with Mycoterra Mushrooms

mycoterraShitake mushrooms growing on sawdust and cereal log, courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

If you think mushrooms are mainly for take-out stir-fry, scary locker rooms, magical caterpillars, and foraging forest nerds, think again. At the Union Square Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, you can not only find an amazing variety of delicious fresh and dried mushrooms—from the feathery and furry to the smooth and silky—but also get an education (and more than a little inspiration) from the small food entrepreneurs at Mycoterra Mushrooms.

Julia Coffey, Mycoterra founder and owner, got her start back before mushrooms were a hip food du jour. She started interning with Paul Stamets, the mushroom guru, back in 2005, the very week that his famous book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, came out. Moving back East opened the opportunity for her to start her own small business, and Mycoterra was born, in the woodlands of Westhampton, MA.  Julia’s boyfriend, Chris, does the Union Square market and helps with production of their large line of products, from fresh culinary mushrooms to home kits to body products and soaps. He loves to talk mushrooms. “They sell themselves,” he points out.

At the Mycoterra stall, a lady looks dubiously at a block of sawdust with a small grove of tiny-capped mushrooms popping out of it, and comments, “I thought they grow on logs!” Chris explains: “Same concept—we crush the log into sawdust which is easier for the mushrooms to digest, so instead of two years it takes two months.  This is still the living material they grow on.”

And these are not your standard brown-capped mushrooms. Smooth Pearl Oysters, furry Lion’s Mane, orchid-like Blue Oysters, velvety King Oysters, dramatic Pink Oysters, cute little Enokitake and foresty Shiitakes all bloom like woodland flowers at Mycoterra’s harvest.

Need your weekly fix of mushrooms, summer and winter, in an exciting palette of varieties? Mycoterra’s Mushroom CSAs deliver one-pound and half-pound selections to subscribers at summer and winter farmers markets in the Boston and Westhampton areas.

Another Mycoterra novelty is their fascinating line of body products, which are admired by a giggly young brother and sister, slurping popsicles. “I never heard of mushroom soap before!” Chris points out that each of the soap bars smells like a candy or fruit, infused with essential oils, even though the chunky mushroom bits give them a rustic texture. The kids sniff, and confirm. As their parents wander over, Chris explains that the soap is made from shiitake extract, which helps improve skin’s natural elasticity and provides antifungal, antimicrobial, antioxidant properties. “It’s like a lock and key—you have shiitake on your skin instead of something else that you really don’t want.” The same principles apply to Mycoterra’s hand and body creams.

“It’s pretty amazing what people don’t know about mushrooms,” Chris says, “mainly because drug companies have lobbied that information out of our main-stream education.” He has a new piece of information for every curious customer who comes by his stall.

And it’s easy to experiment with mushrooms at home—in your kitchen or in your bathroom, closet, or shed. Starter kits provide basic inoculants in favorite varieties, the sawdust substrate on which the mushies feast, and assuring instructions.

But cultivation and unique applications aside, the aroma and rich flavor of mushrooms in the pan and on the plate is hard to beat. Even the culinary-minded among us are just beginning to learn the possibilities. Greg and Alyssa, a young couple from Somerville, come over and ogle all the varieties at the market. Like kids in a foreign candy store, they cheerfully ask Chris, “What should we get?!”

The answer is easy to find, after a simple question: “What do you want to make?” Shiitake are obviously great for stir-fry, Oysters are good with eggs, Lion’s Mane are good as a meat substitute and are also used in Alzheimer’s medication, and Nameko are used in miso soup as a thickener, plus they are personified like Hello Kitty in Japan! Little recipe cards line Mycoterra’s table, offering more detailed cooking tips and concoctions.  The spirit of the market is experimentation—they’re ready to try, and they’ll be back next week for a new variety.