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May 11, 2022 News » Cover Story

Magnificent Mushrooms 

In Utah and around the world, fungus is getting the prime-time treatment.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

Around the world, mushrooms are having a moment. Once relegated to the sidelines of the culinary world, mushrooms are increasingly being celebrated for their unique flavor and nutritional value.

While mushrooms have long been a staple of Asian cuisine, they are quickly gaining popularity in the West. In addition to being served in meals, mushrooms are used by farmers to improve the quality of their soil, and scientists are studying them for their potential medicinal benefits.

Some even believe that mushrooms could be a key to solving the world's energy crisis. In fact, structures like homes are now being built using mushroom bricks, a compound created by mixing mycelium with chopped-up corn husk—it's even a fire-resistant material.

In Utah, mushroom aficionados are cultivating strains using everything from at-home growing kits to specialty farms. Meanwhile, professional chefs are experimenting with new flavors for meat-free cooking. Mushroom love is such that Utah is hosting its first Fungi Fest May 13-15, described by organizers as an intimate and informative event for all fungi fanatics.

Let's Eat
Mushrooms have been used for culinary purposes for centuries. These unique fungi have a variety of textures and flavors that make them a versatile ingredient in many dishes. While some people enjoy the taste of mushrooms on their own, others find that they add an earthy flavor to soups, stews and sauces. Mushrooms can also be used as a meat substitute in vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Utah chef Logen Crew, of SLC Eatery, has been cooking for the public for the past 15 years in restaurants around town and actually grew up hating mushrooms. Today, he has a newfound love for the fungi and works them into both his personal diet for the health benefits and into dishes on SLC Eatery's menu for their flavor and texure.

"King trumpet, cremini and portobellos add a lot of meatiness without having to use meat," said Crew. "They have a nice chew, and I love making vegetarian dishes with mushrooms as the star. The amount of flavor you can put into a mushroom because they are basically sponges is always a lot of fun."

Crew said his favorite mushroom to eat is the chanterelle. "I love the color and the flavor; the nuttiness is delicious, and they are beautiful to look at," he said. "At the restaurant, we have been having a lot of fun with the king trumpet mushroom—some are so big they can be the star of the entrée."

Caputo's Market & Deli carries a chocolate brand—Naïve—that produces a porcini mushroom-infused chocolate as part of their Forager Collection. I picked one up to give it a try. The first flavor on the tongue when you bite into this bar is that of porcini mushroom (it's wild!) that gently fades into the background while the rich cacao takes center stage. The finish is somewhat bitter and the porcini flavor lingers a bit in the mouth. One can imagine these fungi bars pairing well with earthy, red wines.

"I went to visit Naïve in Lithuania and was absolutely blown away by how he came up with these recipes," said Matt Caputo, owner—and chocolate expert—of Caputo's Market & Deli. "There are four bars in the Forage Collection, and they all contain ingredients that he literally forages out of the Lithuanian forest. He finds the porcini in the forest, freeze-dries them and then grinds them with the cacao beans in the chocolate-making process. They become emulsified together. This particular bar with the porcini, with the milk and cacao that he uses, is such a great combination and a great representation of his area—it's sweet and savory."

Caputo's is also the place to find truffles, a prized culinary ingredient that adds rich umami flavor and earthy aroma to dishes. Truffles grow underground near tree roots with both organisms providing nutrients to the other. The "fruit" of this symbiotic relationship is the truffle, often sniffed out by specially trained pigs or dogs.

Health and Wellness
Not just a pizza topping, mushrooms have been used for centuries in traditional medicine and—more recently—have gained popularity as a natural way to improve health. One type of mushroom, the psilocybin mushroom (better known as "magic mushroom"), contains a compound that's been shown to have a variety of health benefits beyond its psychedelic effects.

For example, the psilocybin compound has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality and boost moods.

Additionally, mushrooms are a good source of Vitamin D and antioxidants that help to improve overall health. While more research is needed to fully understand the potential health benefits of mushrooms—the Utah Legislature recently created a task force to study medical psilocybin—advocates say traditional varieties are worth considering as a natural way to improve health.

"We are seeing a lot of amazing results in certain applications. One of them is adult neurogenesis or the re-growing of brain tissue," said Tyler Hacking, botanist and founder of the Mycological Society of Utah. "There are a handful of different medical fungi that are showing the ability to enable neurogenesis at a cellular level."

Hundreds of thousands of mushroom species have been identified, and many are still to be formally discovered. Fungi are essential to our environment and play a lot of different roles. As nature's decomposers, many of these types are toxic to humans, but the cooking process makes some species edible.

"I love studying fungi and applying the science of mycology to my own business as an agriculture consultant," Hacking said. "I consult farmers and teach them how to grow things—I make aerobic fungal compost, which has a lot of oxygen throughout its process—it smells like the rainforest."

Utah Fungi Fest organizer Jme Bonfiglio says mushrooms have a wide breadth of medicinal uses. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Utah Fungi Fest organizer Jme Bonfiglio says mushrooms have a wide breadth of medicinal uses.

Fungi Fest
There are actually quite a few mushroom farms in Utah, especially in recent years. And beginning this year, the state will play host to a festival dedicated to fans of fungi.

Jme Bonfiglio is the organizer of the Utah Fungi Festival, as well as owner and founder of WholeSun Wellness, a now-global company that grows fruity mushrooms for extraction, which are used in supplements and medicines. Bonfiglio's work and research have led to the development of new therapeutic formulas and production techniques for psilocybin.

She's currently researching a mycological solution for single-use plastics that she hopes will help balance our natural environment while allowing us to enjoy clean water and efficient energy sources.

As an educator with extensive knowledge of mushrooms' medicinal properties—including uses in mainstream medicine as well as alternative therapies such as homeopathy—Bonfiglio hopes to have products that are easily accessible to all.

"A lot of these mushrooms are great for immune, cardiovascular, hormonal health [and more]," said Bonfiglio. "Studies have shown that the lion's mane [variety] is known to restore brain function by re-growing nerve endings. These mushrooms even help with nerve pain."

She said that mushrooms are uniquely effective at connecting to the body, breaking down and detoxifying systems, and then restoring them. "They are great for someone who is chronically sick and for someone who just wants an overall immune multivitamin."

From mushroom identification to educational workshops, the inaugural Utah Fungi Fest offers something for everyone. Whether you're a longtime fan of mushrooms or just curious about these amazing fungi, organizers say you are sure to learn something new. The three-day festival will bring together researchers, activities and mushroom enthusiasts to explore fungi.

"It has taken me four years to put this festival together," Bonfiglio said. "A lot of my colleagues that work with me in the field have been supporting me, but I am hoping to get community support from Utah. Many of the speakers are coming in from other places."

Farming and Foraging
Mushrooms are a type of fungi that decay organic matter. They are an important part of the ecosystem because they help recycle nutrients back into the soil.

Mushrooms can be farmed or foraged. Farming involves growing them in a controlled environment, such as in a greenhouse while foraging for mushrooms is the process of searching for them in the wild.

Some mushrooms are edible, while others are poisonous. When foraging for mushrooms, it's important to be able to identify which mushrooms are safe to eat and which ones are not.

Adam Wong, the owner of Intermountain Gourmet Mushrooms, grows fungi all year and supplies five main types to local restaurants (such as SLC Eatery) and grocery stores.

"I started out on a small scale, a hobby scale," said Wong. "Over the years, I scaled it up and opened the business in 2015 in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse."

Wong said he regularly grows five culinary mushroom varieties—oysters, lion's mane, pioppino, chestnut and king trumpet—and rotates other varieties as the seasons change. "Every day, it is something new, watching the grow room and seeing how certain variables may have changed things and then trying to perfect the growth of certain species," he said.

Wong said he starts his growing process with a base layer of wood or sawdust and mixes it with different "amendments," such as nitrogen, then mixes it again to various moisture contents depending on the species he is growing. From there, the mixture is bagged, steam pasteurized and inoculated with the mushroom spawn, which are typically outsourced. Once the spawn is introduced into the sterilized substrate, it is colonized under a temperature-controlled environment for a certain period of time-based on the species. Shitake, for example, can take up to 16 weeks.

"They need a lot of babysitting," said Wong. "There are a few variables you can control, like temperature, but some problems you can't fix and will lose the entire batch."

Growing mushrooms, Wong emphasized, takes more than putting a bag in the dark and watching it grow. "It is more hands-on than people think. Mushrooms are just fascinating."

Local foragers go into the wild for their mushroom experiences. The Mushroom Society of Utah is a nonprofit founded in 1993 by Ardean Watts, a lover of mushrooms and the Utah Symphony, and a group of dedicated mycology enthusiasts. From its humble beginnings, the society has grown to become one of the leading organizations dedicated to studying mushrooms and foraging for wild mushrooms in the state.

Over the years, the Mushroom Society of Utah has developed a number of resources to help both new and experienced enthusiasts alike. These include educational events and workshops, tips on identifying different mushrooms, and field guides that allow members to easily identify mushrooms based on their characteristics. The group meets the first Saturday of the summer months for forays, hunting edible varieties as well as those used for scientific studies. There are currently 200 members.

Higher elevations and natural habitats produce different species, making a foray to the Uinta Mountains an ideal location for discovery. Often, ski resorts in late summer are other great spots to foray for mushrooms.

Ashley Simon’s interest in mushrooms bloomed after trying to identify - a variety in her yard. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Ashley Simon’s interest in mushrooms bloomed after trying to identify a variety in her yard.

Ashley Simon, president of the Mushroom Society of Utah, initially joined after finding a mushroom in her yard she could not identify. She googled "Utah mushrooms" and the society came up. She became even more intrigued upon realizing there's an entire group centered around mushrooms.

"We have a lot of reishi mushrooms in Utah, which are used for medicinal purposes and grow on scrub oak in the foothills near water or a humid microclimate," said Simon. "We are interested in all mushrooms for both education and enjoyment. That is one of the great things about a mushroom society, you could learn this stuff in a book but you would never learn as fast or get the feel from it as you would from an experienced forager."

Forays last for three or more hours and can c0ver multiple locations. Participants document findings with photos, compiling elevation levels and other data, and taking field notes through an app developed by the Northern Utah Funga FunDiS, a local project that the vice president of the society, Gabriela D'Elia, is a part of. The group has tracked over 700 observations from last year alone.

The most-logged findings from 2021 were king bolete (boletus edulis), aspen bolete (leccinum insigne), oyster mushrooms (pleurotus pulmonarius), ink cap (coprinopsis atramentaria) and fly agaric (amanita muscaria), the only non-edible species located. Fun fact: Fly agaric is the variety that is typically featured as an emoji for "mushroom."

"There are a few dozen species of mushrooms that are on the endangered species list because there is not enough information on them—as opposed to thousands of animals. Everything is underdocumented," Simon said. "Mycology has always been an area where volunteer hobbyists make significant contributions all the time because fungi are really unpredictable. It takes quite a few years to establish good scientific records—that's why a community science effort is so powerful."

With so much excitement around mushrooms, it's no wonder that festivals and events dedicated to fungi are popping up all over the globe.

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Utah Fungi Festival
May 13-15
More info and tickets: utahfungifest.com

Friday, May 13: Psychedelic Medicine Screening and Panel at Mountain West Cider (425 N. 400 West, SLC ). A 21-and-over event where guests will learn from researchers, mycologists and activists about the world of psychedelic medicine.

Saturday, May 14: Main Conference at Mountain America Expo Center (9575 S. State, Sandy). A full day of lectures on mushroom identification, cultivation, medicinal benefits, psilocybin, mycoremediation and more. All ages.

Sunday, May 15: Closing event at Mobile Moon Coop (2551 S. Hempstead St., West Valley City). Open-air workshops and a foray with experts in mushroom identification and harvesting.

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