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As the dark, wet days of the year chase us indoors, we look for ways to stay connected to the earth. Seed catalogs, house plants, late-season kale – all reminders that life goes on, and will come back around.Let’s add mushrooms to the list of wintertime ways to plug into the cycle of life. They can be grown anywhere, which is why small mushroom farms are sprouting up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain, connected via a large subterranean brain.At a farmers market a few months back, I bought mushrooms from a serious-looking grower with a stand full of differently shaped and colored shroomage. They were displayed in baskets like floral arrangements, each type of mushroom with a different shape and color, including lion’s mane, chestnut and several varieties of oyster. The mushroom grower was noticeably cleaner than the dirt farmers, and after I learned a bit more about mushroom farming, that made sense.Mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of underground fungal mycelia, don’t need light to grow, which makes them an obvious part of a well-rounded winter garden, and also a bit more of a science project. Family farms, you could argue, are kind of like a giant compost pile, where bacteria move freely from dirt to compost to crops. This is not an unsafe situation, as bacteria and fungus spores are everywhere, and we live with them – a truth that is especially obvious on the farm. But mushroom growers, while riding the same chaotic life-forces, must be vigilant against contamination, so the wrong spores don’t take hold. While a farmer plants seeds in dirt that is essentially an extension of the compost pile, a mushroom grower inoculates substrate under aseptic conditions.There is an important distinction, he shared, between commercial mushroom varieties like white button and portobello, which both belong to the species Agaricus, and the varieties that most small growers like himself prefer. Agaricus grows on compost, which could be made of a lot of different things, including manure, raising the question of where the manure was collected. If it’s from the stable at a track where the racehorses do their business, there could be antibiotics, steroids and other chemicals. Whether the nitrogen comes from manure or chemical urea, using compost adds uncertainty.Our mushroom grower only works with mushrooms that grow on sawdust-based “woody substrates,” which are dirt-free, and that explains why he looked cleaner than his dirt-farming neighbors.As we paid, my son asked if the mushrooms could be eaten raw.“I believe mushrooms should be cooked to do justice to their flavors, and also to make their nutrients more accessible,” said the grower. “Mushroom cells have rigid walls that keep the nutrients from being absorbed, but heat will break down these walls and release the nutrients.”If you want more of a raw feel to the mushrooms, he suggested, give them a light sauté in oil or butter with white wine or balsamic vinegar, and serve them on a salad, where you can still feel that raw freshness while also accessing the nutrients.I was looking to serve my mushrooms with meat, so I wanted something lustier. I ended up cooking them in butter, with minced onions and nutmeg, deglazing alternatively with dry sherry and chicken stock, and finishing with a squeeze of lemon and some drops of cream. I cooked them with sliced button mushrooms to bulk it up.Also widely available are home growing kits, logs roughly the size and shape of a loaf of bread and made of compressed wood chips and mushroom mycelia, ready to sprout when spritzed. They are fun and satisfying to grow, like any garden.Or shops for what a pro has grown. Check out Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms at the Monterey Farmers Market at Del Monte Center or Lake Family Forest Farms at the Oldtown Salinas market. If you know how to identify wild mushrooms (but only if you know – lookalikes can be deadly) this is the wet season for mushrooms to spring up in the woods after a rain. So keep your eyes peeled. They will brighten your winter.
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