Everyone is trying to grow the chicken (mushroom)

Shroomin: Mushrooms need the right habitat to grow — and fortunately, the mountains of WNC offer that. Photo by Alyssa Whelan
Shroomin: Mushrooms need the right habitat to grow — and fortunately, the mountains of WNC offer that. Photo by Alyssa Whelan

Greg Carter’s farm isn’t typical. “If you saw my production area, you’d just see stacks of what looks like firewood around my yard,” he says. That’s because his main crop is mushrooms, which he cultivates on hardwood logs — more than 3,000 of them. Oh, and there’s a cave for underground growing, of course.

Vistors to Deep Woods Mushrooms also see a water-collection system, which is key to Carter’s operation. It’s used to soak logs and provide the moisture mushrooms need to grow or fruit. “On the farm, I control the moisture,” Carter says. “I have chefs and farmers market customers I have to bring my mushrooms to every week. With wild mushrooms, there is no consistency.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love wild mushrooms, or even seek them out for his customers. He is the “mushroom man” of Henderson County, after all. And that means he offers as many varieties as possible, including chicken of the woods, which can only be found in the wild.

Tastes like chicken

“Everyone is trying to cultivate the chicken!” Carter says. It’s one of several varieties he’s currently experimenting with to supplement his consistent stock of shiitake, oyster, reishi and lion’s mane. “Some mushrooms you just can’t cultivate,” he bemoans. “I don’t know of anybody who is successfully cultivating chicken of the woods … yet.”

As renowned local mushroom expert Alan Muskat notes, “Although each mushroom produces millions of spores, they need just the right habitat to grow.” Luckily, the forests of Western North Carolina offer just that. “Our bioregion is tied with southwest China for having the most diverse, temperate forests on earth. That includes possibly the highest variety of mushrooms in the country.”

In fact, WNC has more than 2 million acres of privately owned forest land, much of which is cared for by farmers as well as foragers. In addition to mushrooms, forest habitats provide the conditions for other distinctive local foods: ramps, trout and honey, which are also featured this year during ASAP’s Get Local initiative.

Outside of Get Local, mushrooms are getting lots of local love now, too. In the last year alone, Carter has been hired for three consultations with farmers interested in growing mushrooms commercially. Muskat has seen a steady rise in interest in his wild foods classes, No Taste Like Home. “I guess you could say that they’re wildly popular,” he quips.

Shroom buddies

Carter and Muskat don’t see each other as competition. In fact, they share that they have a wonderful, cooperative relationship, which began when Carter started foraging and learning the tricks of the trade with Muskat around 2000. Muskat even introduced Carter to many area chefs when he first got into the mushroom business. Deep Woods’ mushrooms can now be found on the menus of just about every restaurant in the Hendersonville area — Square 1 Café, West First Wood-Fired Pizza, Season’s at Highland Lake Inn, Flat Rock Village Bakery — the list goes on.

Just as WNC’s two top mushroom men value their working relationship, they stress that chefs should have a great rapport with their mushroom providers and that farmers and foragers should have strong relationships with the greater mushroom community.

“A chef should never buy mushrooms from somebody they don’t know,” stresses Carter. It’s no joking matter; Alan and I have a responsibility to educate chefs and the public.”

“Everyone needs a field guide, and a field guide has two legs,” Muskat echoes. For those interested in foraging, he stresses a DIO, or Do It Ourselves, method. “In many obvious and subtle ways, foraging is about community — with other foragers, with nature and within nature,” he says. “To succeed, you need to make friends with everyone involved: humans, fungi, plants, etc.”

In 2006, Muskat started The REAL Center, a school for relationship skills (REAL stands for Relationship, Embodiment, and Awakened Living). “Now I teach wild foods as a way not just to connect with nature but to realize that we are nature; we can’t escape it.”

Stalking the wild mushroom

Interested in that connection with nature? Muskat’s No Taste Like Home offers wild foods programs, outings, banquets and retreats. In honor of ASAP’s Get Local mushroom month, he’s hosting a special No Taste Like Home event, Stalking the Wild Mushroom, at Highland Lake Cove on Saturday, June 16, from 2:30 until 5:30 p.m. The event is Muskat’s first at the location, where owner Kerry Lindsey is currently planning an entire local food series; visit www.highlandlake.com for details.

In the special workshop, attendees will learn how to safely find and identify morels, chanterelles, and chicken of the woods. Muskat will also discuss other wild foods, including wild medicines, and dyeing with mushrooms. The day will include a short, easy walk, and all ages are welcome. That evening, participants are invited to stay at Highland for swimming and a free fresh fava bean cookout, or to bring their foraged mushrooms back to Asheville for a “find dining” experience at Zambra; chefs will incorporate the day’s catches at no extra charge.
Tickets are $40 per person; Muskat’s introductory e-book is included in the price. To register or for more information, visit http://www.notastelikehome.org.

‘Tis the season

“With everything early this year, June should be peak season for two of my favorite mushrooms: chanterelles and chicken of the woods, along with day lilies, mulberries and wineberries,” says Muskat.

Carter says that he’ll definitely bring his shiitake and oyster mushrooms to area farmers tailgate markets this month, as well as sell them to area chefs. He could also possibly have wild chanterelles and chicken of the woods, as Muskat mentioned.

Any chance for mushroom overload this month? No way, says Carter. “Eat more mushrooms! They’re the superfood.”

Find Carter and Deep Woods Mushrooms at the Flat Rock Tailgate Market, Waynesville Tailgate Market, Saluda Tailgate Market and Henderson County Tailgate Market. Learn more about his farm and forest products at deepwoodsmushrooms.net.

Learn more about Alan Muskat and his No Taste Like Home workshops at notastelikehome.org. Find his newest project, The Afikomen Project, at alanmuskat.com. The project will dovetail with a new tailgate market opening this fall that Muskat says will be the first and only wild foods market in North America.

“Forage” for mushrooms and other forest products by browsing ASAP’s online Local Food Guide at appalachiangrown.org/forest_products.

— Maggie Cramer is ASAP�s communications manager; she can be reached at maggie@asapconnections.org or 828-236-1282 ext. 113.

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