“Come mushroom hunting with me!” may be an unusual pick-up line, but it worked. The cold, damp fall day I spent tramping through the woods west of Toronto in search of the elusive porcini (boletus edulis) turned into a 25-year love affair with a charming Italian restaurateur who introduced me to a world of mushrooms most North Americans are just discovering.
As the spring snow melted, Sandro was impatient to visit his secret spots and track down the prized black morel, usually hiding under dead leaves. The shout of joy when he came upon a patch of the rubbery cones warmed my heart. He’d fill a basket by the time I’d found my first handful, enough for a risotto or nestled in cream sauce over pasta or chicken.
Summer brought graceful orange chanterelles, their apricot scent perfuming the Jeep all the way home. We found peach-coloured hedgehogs with tiny teeth on the underside of the cap, tawny honey mushrooms sprouting exuberantly from the base of trees and the occasional cluster of soft gray oyster mushrooms clinging to dead logs. Sautéed in butter, their rich, woodsy flavor almost eclipsed the steak they accompanied.
At trade shows we’d admire the wild mushroom display at the Ponderosa booth and compare sightings with B.C. owner Joe Salvo, who’s turned his passion for mushrooms into an international distribution network.
Salvo was sleepless in Port Coquitlam when I spoke to him in late November, busy packing freshly-harvested pine (matsutake) mushrooms for Japan and wild chanterelles for customers across North America and Europe.
“Our industry probably shipped 300 tons of pines to Japan this year in two months,” he says, “and probably 10 tons were sold in North America.”
Demand for wild and cultivated specialty mushrooms has grown tremendously in the past few years for a variety of reasons. “There is an awareness, there is a demand,” says Salvo, “then people go to the grocery store and there’s a road block — they may not find it, the price may be outside their comfort range or the quality’s not there.”
Though many retailers have expanded their selection well beyond buttons and ports, he says adding wild mushrooms to the mix requires buyers and merchandisers to work closely together since seasons and availability change rapidly.
“If you present the product well, rotate it properly and price it aggressively, you will start to see turnover,” he says.
But all three things have to happen.
“If you buy 10 chanterelle packages and price them high to cover shrink, figuring you’ll throw away five, you’re just inviting more shrink.”
If you’re not quite ready to go wild, check out their exotic descendants growing in state-of-the-art facilities like Enviro Mushroom outside Toronto or California’s Hokto Kinoko and Gourmet Mushrooms Inc./Mycopia. Justin Reyes, an enthusiastic forager and Mycopia’s director of marketing in Sebastopol, sees the demand for his trumpet royale, maitake, beech and shimeji mushrooming in-store the same way citrus and apple varieties have exploded in the past decade.
Mycopia’s specialties are experiencing fantastic growth because they’re cool and new, to North Americans at least, and they’re part of the growing food-as-medicine trend. One of his best sellers in its eye-catching new package is maitake frondosa, or hen of the woods, a mound of soft gray petals, which also grows in the wild and is valued for supporting the immune system. The firm-textured cluster can be roasted whole or sautéed in pieces, releasing its woodsy aroma.
Salvo and Reyes note specialty mushrooms have a longer shelf life, which gives retailers more flexibility, opportunity and better turnover. “Twice-a-week distribution in the warehouse is more than enough,” Salvo says.
Packaging improves shelf life and offers easy scanning and a chance to teach consumers how to use specialties, says Dan Branson, senior director of produce for Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd., who considers king oysters “one of the tastiest mushrooms I’ve ever had.”
Changing a customer’s buying routine, however, takes sustained and clever marketing beyond a single in-store demo. Branson suggests promoting a mushroom of the month, inviting in local growers to meet shoppers, featuring the item in flyers and cooking schools and branding to get it in more stores.
Back in the woods, Reyes says more young people are joining mycological societies to learn first-hand where their food comes from. I, meanwhile, am planning a very special risotto with my dearly departed mushroom hunter’s last jar of dried morels.
About the Author
Cynthia David is a Toronto-based journalist specialized in food and travel. She covers the fresh produce industry for The Packer newspaper and writes the bi-weekly Fresh Bites column in the Toronto Star. Her favorite pastime is wandering through supermarket produce aisles at home and abroad.