Earthy, meaty mushrooms - not only do they give your favorite dishes a tantalizing uptick in texture and flavor, but they are prized for medicinal and environmental benefits, too. It's our good luck here in South Carolina to have plenty of tasty fungus among us, with more than 3,000 varieties of mushrooms growing across the state. For safety's sake, leave the foraging to the experts and buy from local purveyors. Here are three operations offering South Carolina-grown mushrooms through area farmer's markets, grocers and restaurants.
The monks of Mepkin Abbey spend up to six hours a day cultivating shiitake and oyster mushrooms, turning out more than 1,500 pounds a week. Father Stan, abbot of Mepkin Abbey, says the endeavor helps sustain their monastic life while providing the monks with meaningful work.
Mepkin's oyster mushrooms get their start in specialized buildings, where the monks spread pasteurized medium on tarps then sow it with mushroom spawn. The mixture is then packed into tube-like plastic bags that are pricked with holes and hung in a climate-controlled room. In just days, clusters of pale, tender mushrooms pop from the holes. Each bag delivers three harvests, so there's lots of picking to keep the monks busy. The shiitakes sprout from special logs kept in rooms where the temperature and humidity are tweaked for optimum growth.
Once harvested, the 'shrooms are trucked to a produce distributor and delivered to restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets in and around Charleston. Or treat yourself and buy direct - stop in and purchase fresh or dried mushrooms from the Mepkin Abbey Store, then take a leisurely stroll through the bucolic grounds.
If you're mad about mushrooms, you'll want to visit this renowned farm and research facility in the Upstate. Ecotourists come from far and wide to learn about cultivation, foraging and new developments in fungi research. Mycologist Tradd Cotter conducts groundbreaking research in the Mushroom Mountain laboratory, exploring ways that mushrooms can be used environmentally, medicinally and, of course, nutritionally.
Spawn, mushroom plugs and other items of interest for the budding mycologist are sold at the farm, with a larger inventory offered through the online store, including mushroom-growing kits. Take their South Carolina DHEC-approved certification class in mushroom identification and safety - required for those interested in commercial mushroom foraging. A variety of workshops and tours are offered regularly; check the website for details.
If your ambitions are purely gastronomical, however, head to the Mushroom Mountain stand at Greenville's Saturday Market for a variety of cultivated and foraged mushrooms to take home.
Rebecca's Mushroom Farm, Pamplico
A variety of "Certified South Carolina Grown" oyster mushrooms are harvested year-round at Rebecca's Mushroom Farm. This 30-acre operation uses the leftovers from locally sourced, non-GMO wheat and oat crops as the substrate in which the mushrooms are grown. Cultivated in specialized climate-controlled areas, the mushrooms are picked by hand then quickly shipped off to Lowcountry distributors servicing restaurants, grocers and specialty markets.
You can add these delicious mushrooms to your own dishes, too. Ovis Hill Farms, based in Timmonsville, sells Rebecca's products at farmers markets in Florence and the Grand Strand. Check the Ovis Hill website or call for dates and times, and to confirm mushroom availability.
Once you get your farm-fresh South Carolina mushrooms home, it's time to show them off to best advantage. Give them star-status in a recipe like this one, a favorite from the kitchen at Mepkin Abbey:
Ingredients for the soup:
About 1 1/2 cups dried mushrooms
2 small stalks celery, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2/3 cups light cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine the dried mushrooms and chopped veggies in a large saucepan and add about 6 cups of water and a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the stock has reduced by half, skimming a couple times in-between. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh metal sieve and set aside the strained stock to cool. Separate the mushrooms from the other vegetables and reserve the mushrooms, discarding the rest.
In a food processor, combine the flour and the cream until smooth. Gradually add the cooled stock and pulse until fully incorporated. Transfer the mixture back to a large saucepan along with the reserved mushrooms from the stock and simmer another 15 minutes over medium heat, until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with the roasted fresh mushrooms.
Ingredients for the mushroom garnish:
1/3 pound fresh meaty mushrooms, such as oyster
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Slice the mushrooms about 1/4-inch thick and spread out evenly onto a large baking sheet. Toss liberally with olive oil and season with salt. Roast about 20 minutes until golden brown and delicious.