If you eat white button, creminis or portobello mushrooms — all of which are the same species at different ages — you're likely eating mushrooms that grew in a manure-filled warehouse in Pennsylvania, explains Chris Parker.
Parker and his partner, Joseph Allawos, are the co-owners of Asheville Fungi: Mushroom Central, which opened on Dec. 15 in West Asheville. They want to provide Asheville's restaurants and home cooks with a source for locally grown mushrooms as well as the material they need to grow their own fungi.
It's a two-part business. The lower level houses a grow room where Allawos and Parker cultivate mushroom species such as lion's mane, king oyster, blue oyster, king stropharia, black poplar, and maitake, also known as hen of the woods. Upstairs is retail space marketed toward home-growers.
“We're trying to grow more than just shiitake,” Allawos says. They want to introduce Asheville diners to varieties that are hard to find in grocery stores, and they're hoping that local chefs will see the store as an opportunity for creativity and experimentation. But they do sell shiitake-growing supplies.
Mushroom Central is a manifestation of Parker and Allawos's longtime mushroom fascination. Parker began cultivating shiitakes in high school, and Allawos has studied the fungi for many years as a botany professor at A-B Tech. “The only bad thing about what we've done is that it takes over your psyche, so when I dream at night, I dream about mushrooms,” Allawos says. “I'm not exaggerating.”
To be clear, Allawos is not talking about chemical-induced dreams. While it's legal to sell spores of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, there are no psilocybin spores at Mushroom Central, although there are books about the hallucinogens. “We won't be giving advice about any sort of illegal drug activity,” Allawos says.
In the retail space upstairs, the partners sell all manner of mushroom-growing equipment. There are materials for starting the fungi from spores as well as “spawn bags.” These growing kits appear to be bags of dirt at first glance, but closer inspection reveals a colony of delicate white roots winding through a mixture of sawdust and coffee grounds.
The spawn bags are easy to use and can produce a couple of pounds of mushrooms with proper water, temperature and light. “You just snip the top off, and all of a sudden because there's this fresh air, it stimulates them to make mushrooms,” Allawos says.
The bags cost $25 and come with Allawos and Parker's personal in-store instruction. They eagerly explain how mushrooms grow, and they're equally adept at talking cooking methods.
“They're full of B vitamins; they're really good for you but only if you cook them for long enough to break down the cell walls,” Allawos says. “You get no nutritional value from fresh mushrooms. Your body can't digest them.”
Parker likes to eat oyster mushrooms battered, fried and served as a mock crustacean. Joe likes them in pasta and eggs.
Mushroom Central is located at 16 Allen St., just off Haywood Road. Look for the brightly colored mushroom mural by Austen Mikulka that adorns the walls. The shop is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.