The monks of Mepkin master the art of farming fungi 

Saintly Shrooms

Eat local. Be healthy. Support the community. It's an excitingly strange and energetic time in America. There are more positive movements and kitschy organizations than there are actual citizens, it seems. You can Pecha your Kucha, eat like a Guerrilla, buy only local shrimp, and, most importantly, you can tell everybody about it. You can make a sticker. Heck, you can start a group to talk about groups you support.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is more good mojo out there now than ever before. But with so many great causes to support and too many hip groups to join, it can be overwhelming and even confusing to know who is on the up and up. Which groups are legit? Which products are actually healthy and which ones are merely supposed to be healthy? Who do you trust?

The best of intentions are still just intentions. And a well-marketed cause or product does not make it more sincere or truly beneficial. With so many of these social groups and positive causes mushrooming in the Lowcountry area and beyond, it can be easy to overlook the many hidden gems right in front of us every day. The world is becoming more conscientious. It may be time to take a vow.

After several successful decades of producing eggs at Mepkin Abbey came to an abrupt end — thanks PETA — the Cistercian monks decided to embark on a new agribusiness: they would grow oyster mushrooms.

Why oyster mushrooms? "There is a demand for oysters. And we were told it couldn't be done," claims Brother John, the Abbey's cellar (business manager). "It's close to the Earth, very natural, and we have a tradition of being close to the Earth."

Cultivating oyster mushrooms takes large amounts of attentiveness, studying, and constant tweaking. Who better for this than our friends the monks? They're vegetarians, too.

Primarily cultivated in Asia and popular in many cuisines like Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, the oyster mushroom is now grown all over the world. And while monks worldwide are known for fine products like honey, ales, and cheese, the monks at Mepkin are the first to cultivate mushrooms. (The abbey is also the only place in South Carolina to grow these tasty shrooms.)

Normally, oyster mushrooms grow on deciduous trees in humid, moist forests. In the Lowcountry, oyster mushrooms are grown on 5-foot-high columns, which are stuffed with a medium like recycled cereal straw and implanted with just the right amount of spores. In a sealed container-turned-greenhouse, the plastic columns are suspended and misted hourly in a strictly controlled and clean environment.

Although mushrooms are commonly thought to contain little nutritional value, certain varieties, such as oyster mushrooms, have substantial protein (15-35 percent of their dry weight) and contain plenty of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, including iron, selenium, potassium, and phosphorus. They are purported to strengthen your immune system, your heart, and even have some anticancer attributes. Most notable is the presence of lovastatin which has been shown to reduce cholesterol. So they are indeed very healthy, local, organic, and as "green" as can be. Sounds like familiar marketing terminology.

But how do they taste? That's what you really want to know. We'll let local farmer and chef Sean Brock of McCrady's Restaurant tell you. "We love the mushrooms from Brother John," Brock says. "The flavor is incredible due to the freshness and care taken in growing them. They will always have a spot on our menu no matter what."

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Oyster mushrooms have a light anise or almond scent and taste, coupled with a familiar, yet more mushroomy flavor than a typical white button, making it very palatable to the masses.

Many recipes call for it to be used as an accentuating item to a meat like beef or chicken, in a sauce or as a duxelles, but we found it can stand on its own very easily, too.

"The monks truly mastered the art of farming this bit of fungus, and it is very rewarding to consume a product that has been raised with such spiritual soul. It's very inspirational to see how they support such a beautiful facility with such little means," says Chef Iverson Brownell of Iverson Catering, who drove to the Abbey for a firsthand inspection of the grounds.

"Iverson chopped up the clumps of mushrooms and sautéed them with a drizzle of e.v.o.o., a bit of garlic, and a touch of salt and pepper," reports his assistant, Maryann Hoyt. "His choice of ingredients was simple, and a beautifully composed complement to the mushrooms from such a humble background."

To really expose the good taste of the oyster mushrooms, we enlisted local Chef Justin Croxall from Bull Street Gourmet to craft a few dishes to fully explore their versatility. "The monk's oyster mushrooms are such a wonderful ingredient to be able to use. Not only are they extremely fresh and from such a great, reliable source, they really can be the star of any mushroom-friendly dish. I prefer to serve them with fresh pasta. It really pulls in the mushroom's flavor, making a savory, well-balanced dish."

Mepkin Abbey Oyster Mushrooms are available at select Piggly Wiggly stores and Newton Farms, at the Mepkin Abbey Gift Store, and at restaurants all over Charleston, where they are distributed by Limehouse Produce.


Brother Joe's Oyster Mushroom Fettuccine

6 oz. oyster mushrooms
1 pkg. fresh fettuccine
3 Tbs. good extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
½ c. pine nuts
1 pkg. (3 oz.) sun-dried tomatoes, softened and minced

Cook fettuccine according to package directions. In sauce pan, heat oil and sauté remaining ingredients for 5 minutes till tender. Add more oil if needed. Toss with hot, cooked fettuccine and serve with Parmesan cheese on the side.


Peruvian Potato and Oyster Mushroom Chowder
By Chef Justin Croxall

1 c. Peruvian potatoes, roughly diced
1 c. oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced
¼ c. white onion, roughly chopped
½ c. white wine
Salt and pepper (to taste)
2 Tbs. butter
1 c. milk
2 Tbs. all purpose flour
3 sprigs thyme

Place potatoes in a bowl of water. Soak for 10 minutes. Boil potatoes until tender. Strain and set aside. Sauté onion and butter on low heat until onions are translucent. Add splash of white wine and let alcohol burn off. Add flour to thicken. Whisk in milk. Stir constantly until smooth and thick. Add potatoes and mushrooms and simmer for 20 minutes on low heat. Stir regularly. Finish with thyme.


"Oyster" Rockefeller
By Chef Justin Croxall

6 clean oyster shells
6 oz. Mepkin Abbey Oyster Mushrooms, sliced thinly
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ c. bread crumbs (panko preferred)
2 shallots, chopped
1 c. arugula, chopped
¹⁄8 c. Pernod
1 pinch saffron
Salt and pepper (to taste)
1 Tbs. olive oil
¹⁄8 c. grated Parmesan
1 Tbs. parsley, chopped
3 slices of thick-cut bacon

Sauté bacon until crispy. Set aside bacon and pour off most of bacon fat. Add butter and olive oil. Add finely chopped shallots and garlic. Simmer. Add arugula until just wilted, then add a splash of Pernod to deglaze. Add a pinch of saffron. Lower heat. Whisk in oyster mushrooms. Simmer to allow mushrooms to take in flavors. When mushrooms are tender, strain everything and place in an empty pre-cleaned oyster shell. Top with bacon, bread crumbs, and grated Parmesan. Broil on high till brown. Finish with parsley.


"Pickled Oyster Mushrooms"
By Chef Justin Croxall

2 lbs. small or medium-sized mushrooms
1 medium-sized white onion, thinly sliced
3 stalks of celery, roughly sliced
3 medium-large carrots, roughly sliced
½ lb. baby asparagus
½ lb. haricot vert
½ c. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. salt
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp. whole pink or black peppercorns
¼ tsp. cloves
1 tsp. olive oil

In a pan, place mushrooms in 1 quart of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes or until fork tender. Drain, reserving liquid. Blanch remaining vegetables in salted water. Place mushrooms, onions, and vegetables in layers in 1 quart jars. In a pan, combine vinegar, mushroom liquid, cloves, salt, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Pour over layered vegetables. Add olive oil to jar, allowing it to float on top. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 1 week.


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