The world of mushrooms is vast and diverse, yet it remains relatively unknown to many American consumers, says Olga Tzogas, founder of Smugtown Mushrooms. Tzogas says that most people are familiar with just a few types available in the produce aisle, such as white button, cremini, and portobella. Incidentally, all of those mushrooms are different-sized versions of the same species, Agaricus bisporus, Tzogas says.
For more than 12 years, Tzogas has dedicated herself to identifying, foraging, and cultivating fungi for culinary and medicinal use. She first caught the mushroom bug as an MCC student while taking a course about the natural history of Rochester with Professor Steve Daniel, a founding member of the Rochester Area Mycological Association (RAMA). More than a decade later, Tzogas is a full-fledged mycophile and is occasionally referred to as the "mushroom matriarch" by her friends and colleagues.
Tzogas in 2011 opened Smugtown Mushrooms on Railroad Street near the Rochester Public Market. At present, Smugtown is settling into its new space at 936 Exchange Street but continues to supply mushrooms to several local restaurants and sells grow kits and supplies for home cultivation. A large part of Smugtown's mission, however, is focused on increasing mushroom knowledge and appreciation.
"Fungophobia is a real thing," Tzogas says, noting that some people are apprehensive about eating mushrooms beyond the ones found at the grocery store, or object to mushrooms' appearance or texture. The solution to that fear, Tzogas believes, is a wider awareness of and appreciation for the fungi kingdom. Smugtown grows and sells a variety of mushrooms that the average shopper has likely never encountered before: the mild, deep-purple wine cap; the shaggy lions mane, which has a texture and taste akin to crab; the delicate hen of the woods; and the firm and meaty king trumpet, which Tzogas says makes a convincing "faux scallop."
Along with providing a flavorful array of edible mushrooms for sale, Smugtown encourages people to get their hands dirty and forage for and cultivate their own mushrooms.
To that end, Smugtown offers a variety of classes and workshops. Tzogas estimates she's conducted about 50 classes in the past year, both in Rochester and across the Northeastern United States. Topics range from identifying edible fungi in the wild to medicinal uses for mushrooms and at-home cultivation methods. Though outdoor foraging workshops are over for the season, Tzogas says, you can always cultivate mushrooms indoors. The mushrooms Smugtown produces are grown in a laboratory setting, but anyone can get started growing fungi with Smugtown's grow kits or other cultivation supplies.
"You can grow mushrooms on your kitchen counter," Tzogas says. Smugtown's sawdust spawn allows you to do just that — just poke a few holes in the bag, water, and wait for your mushrooms to emerge.
New mushroom growers may be unacquainted with fungal biology; luckily, Tzogas is a patient teacher. She explains how Smugtown cultivates mushrooms from the mycelium, a network of cells that exists underground beneath the "fruiting body" — what the layperson might call a mushroom. The mycelium is introduced to a substrate, which Tzogas says might be woodchips, straw, or sawdust. It gets to work consuming the substrate and then fruits, sometimes several times depending on the species of fungus.
At Smugtown, aspiring mushroom growers can choose from a variety of grow kits for both indoor and outdoor use. Along with the sawdust kits, Smugtown offers "plug spawn" — small wooden dowels already laced with mycelium that can be inserted into freshly cut logs and then placed in your garden. Though it may take a year for plug spawn to bear fruit, Tzogas says there are a number of reasons to have fungi in your garden, even if you're not planning to eat them: Fungi help to break down organic matter, recycle nutrients, and reduce soil erosion.
Smugtown has launched a fundraiser on gofundme.com to build out their new space, outfit it with the necessary equipment, and hire positions in cultivations and sales. In the meantime, Smugtown is open by appointment only, but you can buy its mushrooms at Hart's, Abundance, and the Brighton Farmers Market, and eat them at area restaurants such as Cure, Good Luck, Fiorella, The Owl House, and Lento. Grow kits and supplies are available through Smugtown's website, along with listings of upcoming events and workshops.