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Island 'mushroom nerds' selling locally prepared at-home grow kits

Each lion's mane mushroom kit consists of mycelium and a block of sawdust and bran growing medium cradled in a plastic sack. (Victoria Walton/CBC - image credit)
Each lion's mane mushroom kit consists of mycelium and a block of sawdust and bran growing medium cradled in a plastic sack. (Victoria Walton/CBC - image credit)

Mushrooms have taken off in popularity in the past few years, and P.E.I.-based fungi forager René Lombard has seen it happen first-hand.

"I do more foraging walks and cultivation workshops, which is all outdoors," said Lombard, who's known on social media as The Red Island Mushroom Hunter.

But now, along with her friend Jon Zuccolo, Lombard has begun to branch out in a new direction. The duo are assembling and selling do-it-yourself mushroom-growing kits.

"It's been a bit of a journey to get here. For me, this was not an immediate progression," Lombard said. "Because of the boom and the interest in mushrooms at the moment, it just seemed like a natural progression for two mushroom nerds."

René Lombard and Jon Zuccolo are two self-described ‘mushroom nerds’ who want to encourage others to develop the same passion.
René Lombard and Jon Zuccolo are two self-described ‘mushroom nerds’ who want to encourage others to develop the same passion.

René Lombard and Jon Zuccolo are two self-described ‘mushroom nerds’ who want to encourage others to develop the same passion. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

The kits being sold via Lombard's Facebook page right now feature lion's mane, but Lombard and Zuccolo want to cultivate other varieties in the future, such as oyster mushrooms, shiitakes and maitakes, known in the wild as hen-of-the-woods.

The science behind the shrooms

The mushroom mycelium — the material that the fungi will grow from — is embedded in a sawdust block wrapped in plastic. Wherever the package is white with mycelium, you'd cut a hole to expose the mushrooms to air.

"Keep it humid and warm and it just produces this blobby brain-type mushroom that's growing on the top," said Zuccolo, holding a lion's mane grow kit with about two inches of white stringy fungi growing out the top.

With Lombard's foraging background, Zuccolo is more focused on the scientific side of the fledgling business.

"I have a biotech company, so this is kind of like an offshoot of an offshoot," he said. "We don't really have much to do with mushrooms in my company, but we have all the equipment that's required."

A close-up of a fresh crop of lion's mane mushrooms growing in one of the kits.
A close-up of a fresh crop of lion's mane mushrooms growing in one of the kits.

A close-up of a fresh crop of lion's mane mushrooms growing in one of the kits. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

The kits began in Zuccolo's lab, thanks to a petri dish of tissue culture and agar.

"The tissue came from a supplier, but P.E.I. is actually a very good spot if you wanted to grow mushrooms," said Zuccolo. "All the raw material is produced here, more or less byproducts or waste products of agriculture."

That includes the sawdust mixture, bran used in the growing medium, and even wild mushrooms growing across the Island.

Lombard and Zuccolo are focusing on expanding the business by setting up an official company in the next few months. But they're already seeing a lot of interest.

"There is a drive to grow your own food a little bit, so I think that's definitely part of it," said Lombard. "And more and more research has been done into the health benefits of mushrooms."

Dry them or fry them

After about two weeks of misting the sawdust block to keep it humid, you should find the mushrooms big enough to harvest.

"If you just wanna fry them up and eat them, that's one way to do it, probably the easiest and the way that most people do," Lombard said. "But you can also dehydrate them and make powders to spice food or to make teas out of."

"I like to do them just pan-seared and topped [with] garlic and butter. And then once it's nice and caramelized, add cream and then just basically pile it on top of pasta. It's delicious," said Zuccolo.

Mushrooms are not very well understood. They're somewhere between plant and animal, so there's something mysterious about them. Always has been. — René Lombard

Each kit, at $27, could "flush" or produce mushrooms up to three or four times.

Lombard said people are often shocked by the speed of growth.

"What I call the baby phase, they look a little bit more like cauliflowers," she said. "Literally overnight they'll just pop up and with no warning… you'll see it sort of thickening up and then just suddenly one day when it decides to, it just start to grow."

It's all part of an enticing mystery for her.

"Mushrooms are not very well understood. They're somewhere between plant and animal, so there's something mysterious about them. Always has been," Lombard said.

"So being able to watch this mysterious mycelium turn into mushrooms is interesting — and obviously, they are delicious."