An Alberta family-owned farm produces fungi that have caught the attention of the world's top chefs
By Braedan Aubry | August 24, 2021
It’s not every day that Rene Redzepi, a world-renowned Michelin-star chef from Copenhagen, takes note of Alberta mushroom producers, but Gruger Family Fungi in Nisku has been churning out edible mushrooms that the culinary community has been praising since the company started in 2015.
Chef Calvin Teufeld of Rub’d Smokehouse BBQ noticed Redzepi was remarking on the unique roast-chicken flavour that certain oyster mushrooms took on when baked in the oven. So, Teufeld decided to have a little fun on social media with pink and yellow oyster mushrooms supplied by Gruger Family Fungi.
“Hey chef, our mushrooms taste like bacon when they’re cooked!” he wrote. To Teufeld’s surprise, Redzepi liked the photo, and the two chefs enjoyed a mutual understanding of the beautiful meat-like qualities that cultivated mushrooms take on when they’re skillfully prepared.
Mushroom naysayers admittedly have a leg to stand on when they’re dismayed by the supermarket variety cremini and button mushrooms. The anti-fungi crowd surely grows each time mushrooms are served soggy and chewy at the dinner table, but chefs, home cooks and the Gruger family understand that mushrooms can be so much more if each variety is adequately cared for in the kitchen.
Pink oyster mushrooms can become meaty and laden with umami if they’re baked in the oven, just like bacon. Pan-fried lions mane mushrooms adopt a tender, delicate flavour that mimics seafood or crab meat. For owner-operators Rachel and Carlton Gruger, preparation and planning are essential for unlocking the full potential of a mushroom, and especially when it comes to cultivating them.
“They will communicate amongst themselves to fruit at the same time, and that is quite unique,” says Carlton. The mushrooms need to be allowed to fruit, rest and fruit again two to three times over in temperature-controlled rooms. Cultivating fungi requires extensive handling over a period of months, with certain batches being handled up to 50 times before they’re ready for consumption. The science needs to be exact, which is something that’s easier said than done when their primary sources of mushroom research are published in Mandarin Chinese.
“Most of the research currently is just done out of China, of course, because they’ve been working with these mushrooms for much longer than we have.” says Rachel.
“When I go translating research papers, my goal is to understand just exactly what’s inside and how we can translate that research into Canadian lab standards,” says Carlton. “We have a list of approximately 1,000 peer-reviewed studies now across each of these mushrooms,” many of which deal with the possible medicinal effects of mushrooms.
“We’re not just focused on edibles, a lot of our research and development has gone into functional mushrooms.” says Rachel. The possible health benefits of mushroom extracts fly under the radar simply because they’re too hard to detect in lab tests.
“Most people don’t even know how to test for the compounds inside [mushrooms] right now,” says Carlton. “There are very few labs in Canada capable of doing batch testing for each round of mushrooms. Kind of like how the cannabis industry was, they had a very hard time capturing what was active inside of their plant with all the different layers of terpenes.”
“We’re just farmers, and we wanted to do something good and healthy; to provide this incredible nutrition by using something that’s straight from the field of grown in Alberta,” says Rachel.
Until more research is complete, diners can enjoy the benefits of lions mane mushrooms the Gruger family way: poached in butter with a little white wine and served on a warm baguette with pesto.
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