What’s you’re philosophy?
We could wax philosophical until we’re blue in the face, but when it comes to food, we believe that it should be nutritious, locally grown, and sustainable. We may have just stumbled upon the perfect food.
How do they grow in the wild?
Fungi play numerous fundamental roles in the cycle of life on this planet. Chicken mushrooms (or “Chicken of the Woods”) are saprophytes, meaning they (along with the majority of fungi) digest dead material. In this case: wood. Oak, mostly. If you’ve ever come across a hollow log lying in the forest, or a hollow tree with an owl peeking out, there’s a good chance that chicken mushrooms were, at some point, responsible. While some mushrooms are parasites (which sounds bad but is actually integral to the function of large forests), chicken mushrooms are not true parasites because they do not feed on the living part of the tree. Instead they digest the heartwood, leaving the life-giving sapwood untouched. When the tree eventually falls in a storm, other fungi can move in to break down the sapwood, but in the meantime you’re left with a perfect enclosure for any number of forest creatures to dwell in.
When we say that chicken mushrooms digest the heartwood of a tree, we aren’t talking about an actual mushroom chomping its way through. It’s actually more appropriate to say that the mycelium which gives rise to the chicken mushroom digests the wood. Mycelium is the body of a fungus. In the case of chicken mushrooms the mycelia range from white to pale-orange. It forms thick white mycelial superhighways which force themselves through the cracks in the wood, quickly overtaking an entire log. These mats branch off into secondary tracts which produce enzymes that break down cellulose and hemicellulose, feeding the fungus and beginning the decomposition process. When the conditions are right and the first cool nights of late-summer strike, the mycelium is coaxed into its reproductive phase and the mushrooms explode into a radiant display.
How are they grown?
The truth of the matter is, they aren’t. Not yet, at a commercial level at least. Chicken Mushrooms are fast colonizers, meaning the mycelium tears through wood substrate very quickly. The challenge has been getting the colonized substrate to “fruit” indoors, in other words: to produce mushrooms year-round. There are only a few people internationally who have achieved indoor fruiting. A Poland-based research group ran the most extensive research on chicken cultivation and shared their results in an article from April of 2013, where they explained the growth parameters they tested and even more importantly, the challenges they faced fruiting this unique variety. It’s clear that the standard protocol for growing gourmet varieties is not the right fit for chickens. Their mycelium is thin, aerial, and lacks the dense matrix of mycelia common to most varieties. Producing a commercially viable strain and methodology for chicken mushroom production is our #1 priority.
We spent the summer and fall of 2012 and the summer of 2013 gathering strains of chicken mushrooms, both L. sulphureus and L. cincinnatus. A “strain” is a unique individual. Everyone you know, assuming nobody’s a clone, is a unique strain of H. sapiens. Our total for the past 1.5 seasons is 40 strains, meaning we have 40 unique individuals to experiment with in the grow room. For some reason only a small percentage of strains (unique individuals within the genus laetiporus) want to fruit from sawdust bags in the first place. 40 is a good place to start. Now we just need the grow room!
Recently, we’ve had some success. We can proudly state that we’re one of the few lucky folks who’ve successfully fruited the chicken indoors. The chicken may have been a runt, but it was tasty! When we have the facilities in place to grow gourmet varieties, we will designate a chicken research space where we can test out different substrate structures and environmental conditions.
There’s another nifty way of growing chickens and other varieties as well. It happens outdoors and goes like this:
It’s easy to tell an oak-log filled with living chicken mycelium from the rest of the stack. You just need a keen eye and nose. That log, lying in the forest will feed deer, squirrels, and anybody else lucky enough to stumble upon it during a “fruiting.” Eventually the wood will decay into lignin, which will eventually decay into humus and enrich the forest, keeping the cycle alive. That same log, sitting in a giant stack at a tree-yard is of little use. You can’t cut it into boards because it’s rotten. It’s not great for firewood. You could grind it up to produce mulch, and that’s about it; That is, unless you’re growing delicious mushrooms.
“Chicken logs” can be rescued from the stacks and placed outdoors in shady areas accessible to water. We have such a spot at Saul designated for a mushroom log garden that we will focus on stocking once the grow room is operational. Then logs once fated to a purposeless existence- living out its days in a heap of arboreal remains- will be used to produce food of superior quality during the warm months with very minimal energy or water demand. This can be a boon to tree-services and tree-yard companies, so if you know anyone in the business, point them to chickenmushrooms.com!
What do they taste like?
Once you’ve tasted chicken mushrooms, there’s no question why they are named as such. Also referred to as Chicken of the Woods, these shrooms are thick and meaty, and they impart an authentic texture and a bright woodsy flavor to any traditional chicken recipe. Chiktake salad, barbecue, tempura, finger lickin’ southern fried. It yields a delicious and eye-catching broth for Chiktake noodle soup. Young specimens are extremely tender and make for wonderful sushi. High in nutrition and low in calories, with 20-30% protein, mushrooms are ideal for vegans, vegetarians, and everyone else! Mushrooms also possess remarkable medicinal qualities ranging from immune support to neuronal stimulation. Some species are very beneficial to people with diabetes and cancer. Although chicken mushrooms haven’t been studied extensively in medical research, we know for one that they are potently active against staph infection in vitro.
If these mushrooms are so great, why isn’t anyone else selling them?
Who knows? There are several possible answers. We’ve already discussed the difficulty to which indoor cultivation attempts have been met. Second, foodies are just beginning to open their eyes to the wide variety of wild mushrooms that are currently available, and the market for fine fungus is only just beginning to expand enough to attract the major producers. If people are happy with their portabellos and creminis, why confuse them with “exotics” like maitakes and lion’s manes if you don’t have to? This mindset is quickly changing. With the extremely diverse flavor and texture profiles available within the fungus kingdom, more exotic mushrooms are poised to expand their market share. And with science discovering the medicinal potential in these same mushrooms, the field is beginning to mushroom (there will be more bad puns to follow)