As recently as July, if a Charleston chef offered chanterelle or chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms on their menu, there’s a good chance diners were eating illicit goods. Although the Lowcountry’s forests (and suburban woods) are rich in edible fungus, it was illegal to harvest and serve wild mushrooms to paying customers.
That law changed this summer, thanks to the combined efforts of GrowFood Carolina and a handful of dedicated mycology enthusiasts. At the food hub’s First Annual Mushroom Gathering, held at GrowFood’s warehouse on Morrison Drive last night, general manager Sara Clow told an audience of around 100 attendees about her surprise three years prior when she learned that foraging and selling mushrooms in South Carolina was not legal (at the time, we were one of only three states where serving edible wild fungus was against the law, she explained).
So, inspired by the lobbying efforts of her friend Jaime Tenney’s (of Coast Brewery) successful PopTheCap campaign to bring high gravity beer production to the state, Clow and her colleagues at the Coastal Conservation League began working with DHEC to overhaul the regulations regarding wild mushrooms.
“We worked three years to change the law,” says Clow. “Legal mushroom foraging is the perfect intersection between policy and infrastructure. We want mushroom foraging to be economically viable, just like farming.”
In early August, the first class of certified foragers “graduated” after a two-day course at Caw Caw Interpretive Center. Now the state has 30 certified mushroom experts. Never again will Hominy Grill’s Robert Stehling be busted for serving black market fungus (DHEC caught him years ago, he admitted on Thursday night).
Immediately after finishing the course in early August, the more proactive foragers began delivering pounds of chanterelles to GrowFood, drawing from the bounty the Lowcountry’s wet summer provided. The Lot’s Alex Lira made use of chanterelles he’d pickled three weeks prior, serving them over cracked bread with a puree of beets and mascarpone cheese and topped with live tarragon and garlic chive blossoms. Of the 10 restaurants represented, The Lot won the colorful presentation category, but they had plenty of competition in flavor.
Warehouse chef Emily Hahn stuffed profiteroles (like tiny croissants) with a decadent oyster mushroom butter reduction and porcini powder, while Tristan’s bite-sized shitake tarts demanded that we eat just one more, several times over. The Seabrook Island Club was a popular booth, thanks to royal trumpet mushrooms and scallops generously dusted with morel powder. Hominy Grill refreshed with a simple mushroom and hominy stew (including classic button mushrooms — they’re so unhip that they’re hip again), while Husk’s aforementioned pickled chanterelles went down easy with blue crab and Asian pear, citrus and watermelon ‘ponzu.’
Because of the dry weather in the weeks immediately following the law change — mushrooms need a damp environment to grow — most chefs relied on farm-grown shiitakes and oyster mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey. Others, like Husk, used Woody Collins’ foraged stock. Middleton Place surprised diners, however, with chicken-of-the-woods and chanterelles harvested that very morning by director of food and beverage Micah Garrison, thanks to his recent certification and 12 square miles of woods just outside their restaurant.
Shroom jokes filled the banter, plenty of fun guys made their rounds, and Artist and Craftsman Supply offered freshly stenciled mushroom shirts. The Deer Creek Sharp Shooters picked their way through a string of bluegrass numbers while the crowd polished off kegs of Frothy Beard’s watermelon wheat beer and Coast’s Chinook pale. Most importantly, the mushrooms all went down easy, and nobody saw visions of anything other than a bountiful fungal future. Here’s to a second annual Mushroom Gathering in 2015, and plenty of wild, meaty (and legal) fungus on Charleston’s plates after the first rains of next spring.
The next S.C. Wild Mushroom Expert Certification and Resale Permit Course is Sept. 20-21 at Wofford College’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center in Glendale, S.C. The course is $463. To sign up, visit mushroommountain.com.
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