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Reigning Champignon

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Reigning Champignon
Photos by Tim Robison

In the Mushroom Kingdom, Hope Springs Eternal

Autumn cues the emergence of a subterranean kingdom. As misty, cooler air settles in, trees shed their leaves, carpeting the forest floor in shades of ochre and umber, to be pierced by the rising fruit of the underworld. Professional foragers, citizens, and adventurous chefs alike take to the woods to harvest nature’s bounty: the incredible, edible mushroom.

Earthy, meaty, savory. Nutty, robust, woodsy. Just a few of the delicious terms used to describe a mushroom’s cherished umami essence. You might enjoy them mingled with goat cheese and tucked into empanadas at Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. Or smoked and fanned out over shrimp and grits at The River and Rail Restaurant in Roanoke. Or stuffed into pockets of housemade ravioli at 1808 Grille in Nashville. Mushrooms add substance to creamy soups, earthy flavor to Thanksgiving stuffing, texture to a brothy pho.

But with limited growing seasons and unpredictable flushes, Mother Nature can’t meet commercial demand. Thus the critical role of the mushroom farmer. Individual mushroom growers have learned to mimic nature in highly controlled environments to provide a steady supply of highly coveted edibles: oysters, shiitakes, blewits, lion’s manes, maitakes, to name a few. Here in the South, professional mushroom growers are popping up like, well, mushrooms. And leading the charge is Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain in Easley, South Carolina.

Fungi Master

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Fungi Master Tradd Cotter.

Destiny has a way of nipping at your heels. Tradd Cotter didn’t envision himself a mushroom expert. He grew up in a military family, his father an air force colonel, his grandfather a sub commander at Pearl Harbor. Cotter was expected to climb the ladder to the Pentagon, but mushrooms chased him. Literally.

At age twenty, Cotter visited a mushroom-growing operation on Johns Island, South Carolina. He was curious, asked questions, even made intuitive suggestions. Driving away on a dirt road, Cotter felt a huge bang. Assuming he had blown a tire, he turned to see the owner chasing after him through the dust cloud, pounding the car with his fist, asking, “You want a job?”

Cotter embraced the opportunity and was soon producing 1,000 pounds of shiitakes a week, delivering them to the back doors of Charleston restaurants. But tragedy befell the business. A newly dug well pumped salt water into the growing room, killing everything overnight. The business closed.

Cotter took a bartending job, but the mushroom bug never left him. He started teaching and lecturing about mushrooms. At an herb festival, Cotter had set up an educational booth when an elderly lady hobbled up with her cane to view his diagrams. “You know,” she told him, “my great-grandmother was a mushroom expert.” Her daughter chimed in, “You should come visit us on Tradd Street to see her mushroom watercolors from the 1800s.”

Cotter lost the address but remembered the street (it being his first name). On a lark, he walked down Tradd Street just to see if he got lucky. He stopped to stare at an older house with a concrete mushroom peeking out from beneath an overgrown camellia. His hosts appeared on the porch, ushering him in to view the extensive collection of Ida Jervey, the first female mycologist in America. Cotter pored through drawers and drawers of meticulously illustrated mushrooms.

That evening, Cotter didn’t show for work. The restaurant called him, and he replied, “I’m done. That’s it. Something profound happened. I can’t come in.”

From then on, Cotter was hell-bent on mushrooms. He supported himself through landscape design but foraged to learn more about the roughly 4,000 varieties of mushrooms that scatter the Southeast, purchasing lab equipment so that he could study them more closely. Then he met Olga, a tall, beautiful blonde who grew up mushroom hunting in Croatia. Together, they packed up the lab and relocated to upstate South Carolina at the foothills of Appalachia, the most “fungal diverse” spot in North America, and possibly the world, on a square-foot basis.

Fruits of Labor

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A Fungi Laboratory.

Tradd and Olga’s operation, Mushroom Mountain, is part mushroom farm, part educational center, part research laboratory, part think tank, and part product development, a collection of buildings on twenty-six acres of sprawling land, field, and forest.

At the center of the complex is a lab outfitted with a nuclear-grade filtration system to maintain a sterile environment. “You could have heart surgery in there,” laughs Cotter, as we peer through glass panes at his petri dishes.

Cotter has figured out how to clone wild mushrooms to grow in his warehouse. He begins by injecting spores or clones or cultures onto a petri plate. Much like a bread culture, his spawn divides, then divides again, and on and on, from petri plate, to jars, to a proprietary block of compressed sawdust and grain placed in rooms with controlled temperatures and humidity levels, until it fruits. Within eleven weeks, one petri plate can produce about a million pounds of mushrooms.

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A Fungi Laboratory.

Clusters of oyster mushrooms expand in gorgeous formations, some golden, some pale gray, some warm blue, all with exquisitely delicate gills under each cap. Baby shiitakes begin to flush from their blocks, poking out like little popcorn kernels. In a few days, they will be fully mature, just in time for the weekly Saturday morning farmers market in Greenville where Cotter’s entire week’s harvest will sell out in under two hours.

Certain mushrooms, such as porcinis and portobellos, are dried and ground into gourmet powders. Others, such as the reishi, known for its highly potent antiviral and cancer-fighting compounds, is harnessed in extract form. One jar of Cotter’s reishi extract is enough to dose about a thousand kegs of mushroom beer to be served up at this year’s annual Telluride Mushroom Festival, affectionately termed Shroomfest or Mushfest. Reishi is naturally sour and bitter, so Cotter made it more palatable. (Beer that’s good for you? Yes, please.)

Meanwhile he is attempting to clone and grow dozens more mushroom varieties coveted by chefs. Chanterelles are problematic, since they grow in partnership with tree hosts. “You can’t just trick out chanterelles,” says Cotter. “You can’t speed up an oak tree.”

Also challenging is the elusive morel. In the wild, morels fruit for about three weeks each spring, with flushes beginning in the mid-South and continuing northward into Canada. The season is acutely short, the product valuable, and foraging spots highly guarded.

“Morels don’t want to be tamed,” says Cotter with a chuckle. “Their natural process is difficult to replicate. But under specific conditions, in people’s yards, it can be done.” As a generous gesture to the world of morel fanatics, Cotter outlines his steps for cultivating domestic morels in his newly released book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.

Mushroom Revolution

Tradd Cotter is a busy man. In addition to growing mushrooms for sale at market, training and supplying area mushroom growers such as the beloved Mepkin Abbey monks, developing a mushroom beer, lecturing nationwide on the benefits of mushrooms, and hosting mushroom-growing workshops, he just landed a deal to stock the shelves of Whole Foods throughout the Southeast. Yet all of this is just the tip of his mushroom agenda.

Per Cotter, mushrooms have the power to solve some of the world’s environmental problems. Does that sound like the windmill-chasing vision of someone who’s eaten a few too many “magic” mushrooms? Perhaps. But to understand Tradd Cotter’s genius, you need to understand the invisible world of the mushroom—the power of that tasty little nugget on your plate.

“How many of you learned about fungi in grade school?” Cotter asks a packed house at a lecture series in Asheville. Silence.

“How many of you studied mycology in high school?” A few tentative hands go up.

“And how many of you learned about mushrooms on a Friday night in college from some guy named Steve?” The room erupts in laughter. Cotter’s point is that the study of the mushroom kingdom is all but absent from the curriculums of our nation’s education system, and we are missing out, big time.

Mushrooms have an uncanny ability to break things down. What we eat is actually the fruit of a subterranean network called mycelium—nature’s invisible internet, foraging for nutrients, its enzymes working like chemical scissors to disassemble complex molecules. You could call mushrooms a keystone species in that their actions open the door for other life to happen.
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Fruits of Our Labor. Tradd Cotter lectures on mushrooms and mycelium.

For millions of years, mycelium has worked in partnership with plants and trees, absorbing carbon and in return giving nitrogen and phosphate back. When mycelium runs out of food, it fruits, creating an above-ground mushroom to spread its spores and continue its life cycle. (And just to blow your mind, can you guess what the largest living organism on Earth is? Not a whale, not a tree grove, but a mushroom, stretching below ground for 2200 acres in Oregon. Google it.)

What does this have to do with saving the world?

It turns out that fungi, in addition to being extremely tasty, can be put to very good use. Mycoremediation, the practice of using fungi to remediate polluted sites, is a burgeoning industry. Cotter is training different fungi in his lab to target dangerous chemicals and then break them down for dissolution or removal. Imagine mushrooms leading the war against oil spills, herbicide contamination, brownfields from textile mills, or coal and ash leaks.

Then there’s the use of fungi in recycling. Cotter teaches schoolchildren how to grow mushrooms on waste such as coffee grounds, cereal boxes, and cardboard egg crates. “In a healthy ecosystem,” explains Cotter, “it takes six hundred to eight hundred years to create one inch of topsoil. But if you work with mushrooms in conjunction with composting and worms, you could achieve that in one year.” Imagine mushrooms as key partners in the battle to restore the world’s dwindling topsoil.

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Cotter uses mushrooms for mycoremediation, recycling, and pest control.

Then there’s the use of fungi to control pests. This is potentially Cotter’s biggest cash cow. Cotter came across a fungi strain, a cordycep, that attacks fire ants, effectively killing entire colonies organically and potentially saving the United States billions in annual damage costs. FOX News paid Cotter a visit in late July to cover the development.

Then there’s the potential for domestic mushroom cultivation to help battle hunger in impoverished nations, providing a surefire source of edible protein—high in vitamins and minerals and grown with no or little technology in recyclable containers with no fertilizers or chemicals. Cotter travels and consults on a mushroom cultivation operation near Cange, Haiti. The project is being filmed as a documentary that can in turn be shown worldwide to help inspire and launch similar operations in places reeling from natural or man-made disasters.

Simply put, mushrooms have been around as our silent environmental partner for millions of years, and we are only now tapping into their potential. Of the 200 species that Cotter currently plays with in his lab, about half are edible, some medicinal and some possessing powers just waiting to be unlocked.

“I just sit there, try experiments, observe them, and bond,” says Cotter. “I would never use the word expert because no one is. There’s just so much we don’t know.”

So the next time you ponder that mushroom on your plate, thank your lucky stars that such a thing exists on this planet. Then dig in, and savor every last morsel.

Chef William Dissen’s Mushroom Recipes

Foraged Mushroom Gratin

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Foraged Mushroom Gratin.

Mushroom Agnolotti,
Corn Sauce, Pea Shoots, and Shaved Roots

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Mushroom Agnolotti.

Cashew-Crusted Halibut,
Shaved and Charred Vegetables, Wild Mushroom Broth

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Cashew-Crusted Halibut with Wild Mushroom Broth.

Mentioned in this post:
William Dissen, Tim Robison, Tradd Cotter