A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Marvelous Mushrooms, Fab Fungi

by Anne Pyburn Craig    

How much thought have you given to fungi lately? The dictionary defines fungi as “any of a diverse group of eukaryotic single-celled or multinucleate organisms that live by decomposing and absorbing the organic material in which they grow.” A secondary definition is “fungal infection,” and Google notes that the word describes “something that has appeared or grown rapidly and is considered unpleasant or unattractive.” Not to John Michelotti, founder of Big Indian-based Catskill Fungi. The more he learns, the more he marvels at these citizens of the “exceptional kingdom.”

John’s on a mission to spread the word. “It’s a largely unexplored kingdom. We only have names for 10 percent of the species,” he says. ”A lot of my initial interest was culinary, coming from my passion to grow and harvest a lot of my own food. I was cooking a lot with a vegetarian friend and I started to realize I didn’t know much about mushrooms, but loved them.

Photo courtesy of Catskill Fungi.
“I joined a mycological association and started taking mushroom walks and reading books. The more I learned, the more interested I became, and it hasn’t stopped. I love to share the passion and help transform thoughts and feelings about mushrooms; I love seeing what others can do. I want to inspire people to try new things.”

Catskill Fungi is a full-service mushroom education and marketing operation. Michelotti leads mushroom walks and consults with gardeners about integrating mushrooms into a permaculture scheme. “We work with people to establish mushrooms within their landscape for aesthetic, culinary, and medicinal purposes. You want mushrooms in your garden; they are working symbiotically with plants, helping them fight off disease, drought, and storms.

Many people don’t realize that healthy plants rely on a fungal growth called mycorrhiza that works in concert with their root systems. “Mycorrhiza interlinks species like completely different trees, and if one tree gets weakened the fungi translocate nutrients from one tree to another to keep the tree alive,” says Michelotti in awe. “There are eight miles of mycelium in a cubic inch of soil. It’s the neurological system of the planet.”

Catskill Fungi will be on the farmers market circuit this summer, offering education, edibles, and high quality triple-extracted mushroom health tinctures from chaga, reiki, and maitake mushrooms. The curative and healthful properties of mushrooms, Michelotti says, are far more familiar in other cultures. The maitake has been called the “dancing mushroom” because monks who found it danced for joy, and not because they found it adorably cute. Maitakes help with cancer, chemotherapy side effects, HIV/AIDS, chronic fatigue, hepatitis, hay fever, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight management, and polycystic ovary syndrome. Mushrooms provide an excellent source of vitamin D, hard to come by naturally from other sources.

And they’re every bit as good for the planet as they are for our bodies. Saprophytic fungi, a group that includes shiitake and oyster mushrooms among other delicacies, play a vital role in soil building; they’re nature’s cleanup crew, transforming dead matter into living earth. Fungi also create a natural filtration system for stormwater and runoff, purging it even of harmful petrochemicals and cleaning watersheds—a vital part of habitat preservation.

Michelotti says there’s no comparison between the taste of an organically wood-grown or wildcrafted mushroom and the commercially farmed variety; as with most foods, the free-range ones are richer, more nutritious, and more delicious on every level. And growing your own is easy, a matter of inoculating wood or sawdust with the proper spores and letting the fungi pretty much do the rest. Considering that a three-pound order of fresh maitake sells for about $50 online, there’s a lot to be said for growing your own even from a strictly culinary point of view.

Catskill Fungi stands ready to assist one and all with every aspect of mushroom and fungal exploration. Michelotti has forayed far beyond foraging, growing, cooking, and landscaping; he’s an encyclopedia of lore about mushroom art and the latest tech. “There’s a Troy-based company, Ecovative Design, that grows mushrooms in agricultural waste and has developed an organic replacement for Styrofoam,” he says. “They are literally growing packaging and walls and insulation.”

And that’s not all. “Spores don’t require oxygen and can travel through space or through a cow’s stomach intact,” he says. “They’re an ideal protein source, and are being considered for cultivation in outer space…”

Wow. 

For more on shrooms and their marvels, catch up with Catskill Fungi at the Kingston or Woodstock Farmers Markets this season or visit catskillfungi.com.