New England Wild Edibles
Published in CISA’s September 2010 Enewsletter.
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On a Saturday morning in late August, Brandi Parker of Heirloom Catering set up a hotplate under a tent at the Greenfield Farmers’ Market. The previous day, Brandi sent a shopping list to market manager Devon Whitney-Deal, who collected ingredients from farmers at the market during the early morning. By about 10:30, Brandi was passing out her first samples of her local mushroom crustini. These included sweet onions from Shoestring Farm, rosemary from Crabapple Farm, and bread from El Jardin bakery, but the centerpiece ingredient was chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms from Paul Lagreze’ New England Wild Edibles. Brandi’s crustini samples caused a run on mushrooms, and Lagreze was sold out when the market closed at noon.
When Paul Lagrèze started studying and gathering wild mushrooms more than 25 years ago, he was simply doing something he loved. Now, in the woods of Colrain, he runs New England Wild Edibles, and his passion continues. Set in a gorgeously picturesque hill town, New England Wild Edibles carries wild and cultivated mushrooms, other wild edibles (when in season), and offers occasional courses and demonstrations in wild edibles and mushroom cultivation. Everything Paul and his family produce, however, depends upon a factor unique to the majority of mushroom growing facilities: mother nature.
Foregoing the conveniences of an indoor, climate controlled factory, Paul and family grow all of their cultivated mushrooms outdoors in a shady riverside wooded area in Colrain. “It’s a lot of work,” Paul says, “but it’s worth it.” According to Paul, growing outdoors is much more enjoyable, and safer for workers than indoor mushroom facilities.
Being enjoyable, as it turns out, is a very important factor in the business. “I started gathering wild mushrooms because I loved it,” Paul said. It wasn’t until a particularly dry year came along, preventing wild mushrooms from fruiting, that he started cultivating his own. Now New England Wild Edibles sells roughly half wild and half cultivated organic shiitake mushrooms, depending upon the three factors that affect growth the most, temperature, moisture and shade, which differ from year to year. Paul enjoyed cultivating and has since honed his casual cultivation and gathering to a much bigger, smoother operation. He is not, however, interested in expanding much more. “If it gets too big for me and my family to handle, then it’s just not as fun,” he explained, “we don’t want to get in over our heads, we want to enjoy ourselves.”
Paul also makes every effort to keep his business local. Selling only to a few local restaurants, markets and farmers markets, the farthest distance his mushrooms and wild edibles ever travel is to the Springfield Farmer’s market. He also tries to keep his purchasing as local as possible. For example, he always tries to purchase wood, of which he uses a lot in cultivating, within a 20 mile radius of the farm. Also keeping in tune with the local surroundings, Paul makes sustainability a priority in the gathering of wild edibles.