“These logs really produced a lot for us,” says Olga Tzogas, pointing to a decaying stump at an “undisclosed location” in Webster, N.Y.
It’s one of six or seven key spots where Tzogas and her crew of self-described “mushroom freaks” forage for gourmet fungi.
“It’s super wonderful.”
Tzogas is heading up an effort known as Smugtown Mushrooms. It’s part business, part community group, part educational organization.
And - let’s just get this out of the way - there’s nothing illicit about the type of mushrooms they’re working with.
“We want to educate the community about wild food - that it’s OK and that we shouldn’t fear it,” says Tzogas. “But we also want to tap into the market of cultivation and be producing mushrooms for people that are a little sketched out by wild food.”
To see that side of Tzogas’ enterprise, we trek out of the woods, head back to the car and drive west.
Investing in the ‘business’
“This door’s a little bit serious,” Tzogas says, jerking open the door of an empty warehouse in the town of Gates.
This former storage space is the next step for Smugtown Mushrooms. The vision “is to build a really nice lab and a couple grow-rooms and then a small little retail space,” Tzogas explains.
Smugtown Mushrooms is trying to raise $23,000 from online donors to make it happen.
The goal is to fill a niche in Rochester’s local foods movement - while also spreading the word about the health benefits of mushrooms.
Tzogas has seen it in action before. She studied on the west coast with Paul Stamets, a star of the mushroom world.
Tzogas says supplementing foraging with indoor mushroom cultivation will open the door to more, well, business.
“I hate the word ‘business’ but, I mean, it is a business,” says Tzogas. She sees Smugtown Mushrooms as something more: “A mushroom community in Rochester.”
So far, Smugtown Mushrooms has built relationships with chefs and local foodies - who’ve offered rave reviews of the group’s foraged finds.
“Wild edible mushrooms are like culinary heaven for cooks and chefs and things like that,” Tzogas says.
The handful of restaurants she’s worked with include some of Rochester finest. Tzogas says demand from other restaurants is there. “They’re ready to jump on the train; they’re just waiting for us to get our gears in order.”
Construction on the indoor facility starts soon, says Tzogas. In the meantime, the Rochester native is taking her message to the public. This Saturday (March 24) at 2 p.m., Tzogas is leading a mushroom talk at Java’s at the Public Market.
Buoyed by local support, Tzogas says she’s confident her far-reaching concept will succeed. But if it goes belly up, it won’t stop Tzogas and her crew from pursuing their passion for foraging.
“We’re going to do this either way,” Tzogas says. “It’s really about doing what we love, making a living off of it and just making it about the idea - and about the love - before the profit.”