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Chef Eric Pless says Mushrooms are Magic

Chef Eric Pless says Mushrooms are Magic

Mushrooms have ties that bind — both literally and metaphorically.

The humble little plants from Kingdom Fungi are the starting point for a substance called transglutaminase that is used as a binder for all kinds of kitchen applications (it may be why some store-bought sausages don’t crumble when you cut them, much like adding egg to your hamburger meat-mix). And it’s a molecular gastronomer’s tool for making a “sushi checkerboard” of two different kinds and two different colours of tuna, for instance: they use transglutaminase as a mushroom-based “glue.”

But more naturally, mushrooms simply bring chefs and their customers together, and they mesh ingredients on the plate at the same time: a slightly charred striploin, grilled to absolute perfection, for instance, and garnished with a sauce of mushrooms, shallots, sherry and grainy mustard is a very happy circumstance indeed.

It is perhaps that application — and such a combination of flavours — that has Charcoal Group Director of Culinary Eric Pless so keen on mushrooms. He’s currently caught up in their magic — so much so that’s he’s growing his own at one of the Group’s restaurants, Oviinbyrd Golf Club in Foot’s Bay, Ont., about 250 kilometres north of Kitchener and just off of Highway 400.

It’s not a new endeavour, Pless’s mushroom mania. It’s been a part of the home gardening scene for centuries in China, and it will likely sprout up more in mainstream local food production here too. When you have the right know-how and the right equipment, to have shiitakes, oysters, lion’s mane, wine caps and cinnamon caps at hand via your own mushroom farm. The only real downside to the endeavour is that to see the fruits of your labour, you have to wait longer than with other vegetable-gardening initiatives. It’s a slow process waiting for something so good.

Mushrooms: Good and good for you (Photo: WREats)

Mushroom-growing aficionados compare it to a sourdough starter: once a set of those mushroom mycelium get going, it wants to keep on growing. Dust-like spores drop from the gills or pores on the underside of the mushroom cap and send out a network of fibres that use enzymes to infiltrate organic matter like wood. Once you get that, you’re good to go.

The process, though time-consuming and demanding of the space and climate to get good results, has benefits chief among which is another arrow in the quiver of small-batch, hand-crafted, hyper-local and fresh food that restaurants can use — and it guarantees that you have safe mushrooms without the trouble, inconsistency and cost of foraging in the wild, as fun as that might be.

For Pless, a Niagara Region native who has staged at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, UK, and overseen restaurant operations as executive chef at Toronto’s Distillery Histor ic District, this is the first time he’s tackled mushroom growing and has only observed the process. He now admits that it requires a lot of work and time but perhaps most of all patience: the results are a year away yet. Accordingly, he’s spent the last several months doing a lot of reading on the subject and asking a lot of questions.

Chef Eric Pless (Photo: Oviinbyrd).

Chef Eric Pless (Photo: Oviinbyrd).

On the property at Oviinbyrd, Pless is setting up hewn logs and inoculating them — like you would cheese — with the spores of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes): both are among the most commonly cultivated edible mushrooms you will see. And among the most delicious.

“The thing that takes the most time is the mushroom inoculation,” Pless says. “A couple of weeks ago, I went up and cut some logs into four-foot lengths, mostly oak, maple and birch.”

Mushroom farm site (Photo: Eric Pless).

Pless says the next step is to keep the wood saturated with water, from now until early summer. “Every morning, the logs need to be watered,” he says. “We then drill a lot of holes in the logs and drop in a sawdust (mushroom spore) inoculation. The holes then get covered with a wax plug.”

One of his spore sources is Mycosource Inc., a company north of Ajax, Ont. Pless plans on drilling about 1,000 holes to a depth of just over a centimetre for inoculation. That will produce quite a few mushrooms once the mycelium get active.

“That will be shiitake, but I also want to try some oysters on the birch logs,” he adds. The actual garden area is roughly 75-ft. long and 30-ft. wide and includes a natural raspberry patch. “We’ll have a lot of deer visiting, you can be sure.”

Holes drilled for spore inoculation (Photo: Eric Pless).

Once the inoculation and wax capping has taken place this summer, the rest is the pure labour of watering the logs each and every morning and evening. And waiting. And waiting. This coming fall and winter, the spores will become dormant. Then, in the spring of 2017, the watering process continues, Pless says.

“Come the summer, we will give the logs a little knock and wake up the mycelium, and we should start getting a nice large forest of mushrooms. My biggest concern won’t be the wild animals around the mushrooms, however. It will be keeping restaurant staff away from the them,” he says with a laugh.

The yield is a bit of crap-shoot, Pless intimates: like a wine vintage, perhaps, a lot depends on climatic conditions, temperature, moisture and humidity. “If we miss a step, that’s when we mess with the harvest,” Pless says. “Otherwise, we can get four seasons’ worth of mushrooms. And every year we add a new generation."

The fruits of last year’s labour (Photo: Eric Pless).

Part of the reason he is taking the mushroom-nurturing plunge, with the work required and time to wait, is his own background and lifestyle; he has, you could say, a connection to home-made food that was inoculated through his forebears, says Pless.

“I was raised by my grandparents. One spent a vast majority of the time baking. The other one spent a vast majority of the time between the garden and the kitchen. It was about cost-savings, and it was about knowing about where your food comes from. That to me is right. That’s part of the way you treat food.” 


Written by: Andrew Coppolino
Original article can be found at Rare Republic

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