When Chris Pacheco started Seacoast Mushrooms in Mystic four years ago, he found there was hardly any demand for the gourmet fungi he was growing at his new farm.
“The reception wasn’t what I had anticipated,” he recalls. Restaurant owners didn’t seem interested initially and Pacheco was discouraged.
Then he walked into the Oyster Club in Mystic with a box of freshly picked mushrooms. He met executive chef James Wayman, who was transfixed by Pacheco’s bounty. “He literally looked at me, grabbed the box of mushrooms from my hands and disappeared with them,” Pacheco recalls with a laugh. As Wayman left, Pacheco remembers him saying something like, “I know exactly what to do with these.” A semi-confused Pacheco turned to the other staff in the kitchen, who told him Wayman wanted to buy the whole box of mushrooms.
It was unconventional but it was among Pacheco’s first restaurant sales. Simultaneously, Pacheco was sharing the gospel of mushroom appreciation at farmers markets throughout the state, one brightly colored fungus at a time. Other top restaurants in the Mystic area began purchasing the mushrooms, and little by little word began to spread and demand began to grow.
Today Seacoast Mushrooms supplies dozens of the state’s top restaurants, from local favorites in Mystic like the Oyster Club to Middletown’s Conspiracy and restaurants in Hartford and Fairfield counties. The mushrooms, which are bursting with flavor, are grown inside damp shipping containers that have environments painstakingly monitored to bring in the right amount of fresh air and humidity. The farm grows up to 10 varieties and produces between 600 and 800 pounds of mushrooms per week. Offerings range from well-known shiitake mushrooms to lesser-known varieties such as maitake, blue oysters, golden oysters and lion’s mane. This Alice in Wonderland assortment offers an array of savory flavors, and many of the mushrooms are associated with health benefits.
As the larger community becomes increasingly aware of the potential healthy qualities of local mushrooms and their incredible flavors, people in Connecticut are developing an increasing appetite for them. Local mycological societies often offer group foraging expeditions for those who want to learn more about finding their own mushrooms. Though locally foraged mushrooms are safe if you know what you’re doing, it is best to be sure about what you’re eating, as the psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms have been known to grow in the state and not all mushrooms growing here are edible.
Pacheco sells foraged mushrooms that he finds in Connecticut woods. The rain early this summer seemed likely to result in a good mushroom season. “I think I’m the only person in Connecticut who’s happy when it rains,” he says.
He caught the farming bug early, growing up on his family’s Old Stone Orchard, an apple orchard in Little Compton, Rhode Island. An engineer in the Navy, Pacheco served as an officer on the USS Hartford submarine, stationed in Groton. He stayed in Connecticut when his service ended. About eight years ago he started growing mushrooms at the family orchard back in Rhode Island. That experience inspired him to open Seacoast Mushrooms in Mystic.
There are some similarities between mushroom farming and other types of farming, Pacheco explains. Like any farmer, he worries about his crop, and there are many challenges to success. However, the world of mushrooms is very different from that of plants.
“Fungi is a kingdom in and of itself,” he says. “Humans have more in common with fungi than fungi do with plants.”
The mushroom-farming community is smaller as well, he adds. Though there are a handful of other mushroom growers in the state, there are fewer experienced farmers to turn to when in need. “[If] you start having problems with fungi, it’s a pretty small group of people that can help you through your problems.”
Though mushrooms can be difficult to work with, Pacheco thinks there is an unfair stigma around them and he encourages people to learn how to pick their own. Too often laymen depict them as either poisonous or hallucinogenic. “Mushrooms have received a really bad reputation,” he says. Sure, there are mushrooms you want to avoid, but the same can be said of plants. “You don’t want to pick some poison ivy and eat that. There’s a number of plants you can’t eat in the woods.”
His advice: “Make sure you do some homework,” hook up with a local mycological society and then start enjoying the fungi in the nearby woods. “There are just some amazing things that the woods have to offer here in Connecticut with regards to mushrooms,” he says.
There’s Fungus Among Us: Seacoast Mushrooms grows many varieties of fungi. An array of mushrooms can also be found growing in Connecticut forests. But use caution and educate yourself; some mushrooms are poisonous and can be mistaken for nonpoisonous types.
A white, globe-shaped mushroom with shaggy spines, lion’s mane are often said to have a texture and flavor when cooked that is similar to crab or lobster meat. They also contain a host of healthy nutrients that have been linked to cognitive health.
With a similar woody flavor to the blue oyster, golden oysters are perfect in a variety of recipes. They have a vibrant yellow-gold appearance and get bitter if sautéed, but have a cashew flavor when cooked with a dry high-heat.
These grow in the wild in clusters, generally at the base of trees, and are known as hen of the woods. They are hailed for their healthy properties as well as for their depth of earthy flavor.
A subspecies of the pearl oyster with a striking blue-gray appearance, they have a sweet, woody taste and are great for lighter dishes and as a topping.
A classic-looking mushroom with a long white stem, the king oyster has a chewy texture and flavor that is reminiscent of meat. They are a favorite for recipes because they remain firm during the cooking process and coin-shaped slices from the stem can be used in place of scallops.
A mushroom that will be familiar to many readers, shiitakes are known for their savory, buttery and meaty flavor. They have thin stems and large caps.