Marvellous Mushrooms: Fungi are even more fabulous than you may realize

At Foragers Galley, co-founder Jonathan Wright and his team produce the kind of mushrooms chefs love, like these golden enokis. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

The stout box that arrives from Foragers Galley is my kind of DIY project — one that guarantees gourmet results.

Right now, it’s just a block of moist, inoculated substrate, but with a little time and TLC, this box promises a delicious crop of home-grown black king pearl oyster mushrooms in less than a month.

And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Not only will I have two (and up to four) “flushes” or crops from this grow-at-home kit, but the instructions also say that if I bury the spent growing medium (a mixture of sawdust and legume waste) in my garden, there’s a good chance I’ll have lovely oyster mushrooms popping up for years to come.

Mushroom Growing is Growing

Foragers Galley is a small mushroom farm in West Saanich, the brainchild of keen foragers and fast friends Jonathan Wright, Janusz Urban and Brendan Harris.

They are hand-cultivating a variety of gourmet mushrooms in the temperature-controlled environment of a shipping container and selling their small crops of black king pearl (BKP), blue oyster, lion’s mane and chestnut mushrooms to chefs and small grocers around Victoria. They still get out into the woods to forage wild golden chanterelle, morel, porcini and lobster mushrooms in season, but this growing operation has added a whole new dimension to their business.

“It started as a passion project,” says Wright, who notes that he and his bearded buddies love to sail and hike around the region, hunting, fishing and foraging for wild foods of all kinds, from sea asparagus and gooseneck barnacles to salmon berries and wild mushrooms. But the mushroom farm takes their fascination with fungi to the next level. 

“We have a sterile lab where we grow the culture out and a fruiting chamber with controlled conditions,” he says. “We can grow 200 pounds of mushrooms a week. And now we have our mushrooms and grow kits in over 30 retailers and on more than a dozen restaurant menus.”

Foragers Galley plans to expand with a second facility in the Cowichan Valley this year and produce some value-added mushroom products, including pickled shiitakes and dried mushroom rubs.

It’s a similar story up island, where family-run Comox Valley Mushrooms produces a variety of colourful pink, blue, golden and black oyster mushrooms, plus lion’s mane, shiitake, matsutake and unusual varieties like elm and chestnut mushrooms for local chefs and markets. You’ll find them selling fresh mushrooms at the Cumberland Farmers’ Market, and you can buy direct online or even sign up for one of their mushroom cultivation workshops.

Once you’ve honed your mushroom-growing skills, you can create your own expanded set-up, complete with a domed grow box or indoor mushroom growing tent, from Myco, based in Duncan. They specialize in equipment and supplies for mycology enthusiasts, both hobbyist and commercial growers, with growing mediums and liquid cultures of medicinal reishi and turkey tail mushrooms, and edible oyster and lion’s mane, to get your fungi experiments started. 

Myco also sells a mini Mushbox kit, complete with the colonized substrate and soil required to grow a variety of mushrooms. Or you can find blocks of red alder inoculated with ready-to-grow shiitake or oyster mushrooms, from Salt Spring Sprouts and Mushrooms at the Moss Street Market.

Marvellous Mushroom Meals

Wild mushrooms are a special treat, but cultivated oyster and shiitake mushroom staples, whether from a farm or a grow-at-home kit, are also a culinary revelation when compared to the usual supermarket varieties.

After a quick, hot sauté in a little butter, each oyster mushroom I tried had a distinct texture, flavour and character that was miles from the ubiquitous button. The blue oyster was mild and velvety, while the sweet king oyster cooked to dense, crispy perfection.

Wright recommends the pink oyster as a vegan ham substitute and says the large black king oyster can be simply seasoned and grilled. The chunky white lion’s mane, with its many hairy spikes, is large (reaching 1.5 pounds) and dense. It makes a meaty mushroom steak or offers a crab-like texture when cooked and pulled apart.

Chef Castro Boateng breeds lion’s mane and serves it as a vegan “fried chicken” with curry and coconut-braised lentils. He also serves crispy oyster mushroom “wings” with fermented carrots and his harissa aioli for dipping. 

Blue oyster and black king pearl: molly jane; lion’s main: Foragers Galley; pink and white oyster: Getty images.

“Vegan mushroom wings are on our snack menu, dipped in a tempura batter and fried until nice and crispy,” says Boateng, who buys 70-plus pounds of mushrooms from Foragers Galley each week. “These guys grow mushrooms and are really knowledgeable — they’re giving us top quality mushrooms.”

In fact, whether it’s seared sablefish with chanterelles; mushroom risotto with lion’s mane, cauliflower and chestnut mushrooms; or braised short ribs with foraged mushrooms, Boateng features fungi in almost every dish.

“We slice the lion’s mane and batter and fry it or marinate it with olive oil and herbs and grill it like a steak,” he says. “The texture is almost like meat.” 

These gourmet mushrooms are popping up on other menus, too. The chefs at Agrius pair oyster mushrooms with local fish, and you can order a mushroom quesadilla kit from MAiiZ Nixtamal, complete with hand-made tortillas, local cheese curds and a grow-your-own kit from Foragers Galley for blue oyster mushrooms.

Mushrooms offer meaty texture and savoury umami flavour, whether simply sautéed in butter, enjoyed as an appetizer on crostini, in a creamy pasta sauce or soup, or fast-fried with garlic, shallots and white wine to dump over a grilled steak. Try raw enoki mushrooms in a salad or Asian noodle bowl, and shiitakes cooked with sesame oil and soy in stir-fries or ramen.

Mushrooms as Medicine

We all know how delicious wild mushrooms are, but the latest buzz around the fruiting bodies of our forest fungi is their medicinal qualities.

Many are prized for their culinary and functional properties. Oyster mushrooms are loaded with protein, fibre and all essential amino acids, plus B-vitamins like niacin and riboflavin. Shaggy lion’s mane mushrooms are both a delicacy and a brain booster. The savoury Japanese shiitake marries well with Asian ingredients and contains compounds to increase immunity and reduce cholesterol.

And medicinal mushrooms, from chaga to fan-shaped turkey tail mushrooms and reishi, are popping up in all kinds of powders and products, touted as potential miracles for people (and pets) suffering various health problems ranging from cancer to depression. 

American mycologist and mushroom evangelist Paul Stamets uses his books and TED talks to spread the word about his mushroom discoveries. Stamets says oyster mushrooms can remove toxins from the environment, digesting plastics and other pollutants from oil spills and PCBs to nuclear waste. 

Rare mushrooms, like the agarikon found only in the bits of old growth forests still standing on this coast, may protect us from future pandemics, he says. During a recent research trip to B.C., Stamets collected 80 strains of the ancient mushroom on Cortes Island, with plans to culture the fungus at his Fungi Perfecti farm in Olympia, Washington, to treat COVID-19 patients. 

A mycelium extract from the polypore (bracket fungi) growing on trees on Cortes may also fight viruses that affect honeybees and lead to colony collapse, he says. 

Foragers Galley Morels. Photo By: Foragers Galley.

Magical Mushrooms

It was the late James Barber (TV’s Urban Peasant) who made cultivated B.C. mushrooms “marvellous” for Canadian consumers, and he would no doubt concur that the new Island mushroom growers are onto something very good.

Here on the wet West Coast, wild mushrooms flourish in the old growth, whether the valuable matsutake (pine mushroom) or the dark, conical morel that blankets the spring forest after a burn. There are golden chanterelles in the fall, wild oyster mushrooms and woody medicinal turkey tails sprouting from tree trunks.

“Mushrooms are deeply embedded in the culture of the West Coast.”

We’re also just beginning to learn more about how the fungi and the forest are inextricably linked — a support system of underground mycelium, nourishing and sharing information among trees, and a blueprint for a healthier understanding of our own place in the natural world.

A new study found eating mushrooms lowers the risk of depression, and that’s not only the hallucinogenic “magic mushroom” with its psychedelic psilocybin. Apparently, eating almost any mushroom will improve your mental health because fungi contain the amino acid ergothioneine, which can reduce anxiety.

That may be why this box on my kitchen counter, promising a gorgeous cluster of velvety black oyster mushrooms, has me giddy with anticipation and joy.