For Sale: Raw Mushrooms, Never Farmed

Mushroom foraging is a longtime tradition in Michigan. Here’s some insight into the professional foraging industry.
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Denis Vidmar, owner of The Mushroom Hub, sources both wild and farmed mushrooms from in and out of the state. // Photo by Chuk Novak

In the past four months, I’ve tried three memorable dishes: maitake dumplings at Marrow; a spaghetti squash at Freya prepared with chicken of the woods; and a schnitzel topped with morel rahmsauce at Alpino. What do the three have in common? They each feature a mushroom species that grows wild in Michigan. But how did they get to the table?

“We source ours from a few different companies, and a lot of the foragers they get them from are Michigan-based,” Alpino’s executive chef, Colin Campbell, told me back in February. “[Morels] are hard to cultivate — anything that has been cultivated successfully doesn’t even hold a candle to what you get from foraging them.”

You can find foraged mushrooms for sale at many farmers markets and even some grocery stores. They’re also an offering at The Mushroom Hub, a mushroom boutique with locations in Midtown Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. In addition to farmed fungi, owner Denis Vidmar sources wild mushrooms from both in and out of state.

“There are people out there that forage full time, but it’s usually seasonal,” Vidmar says. “I work with professional foragers who have teams of up to 50 people. Getting into foraging is a serious deal.”

Since ancient times, foragers have been secretive about their “patches,” places where they know edible fungi are abundant. Vidmar once met a man who claimed to gather and dry up to 8,000 pounds of morels each year from a property he co-owned Up North. Whether said man was exaggerating or not, a pound of dried wild morels can retail for well over $100, in some cases.

Not only can giving away the location of a patch mean losing out on your haul, but many foragers are also concerned about others disturbing the environment and preventing future harvests. “The big impact humans have is through compaction of the soil and disturbance of the habitat,” says Gregory Bonito, a Michigan State University mycologist and president of Michigan’s Midwest American Mycological Information, or MAMI. “So we say tread lightly. You don’t want to destroy the habitat; you want to take gently and not rip everything up.”

MAMI offers the Michigan Wild-Foraged Mushroom Certification Program. Enrollees who successfully complete the program receive an expert mushroom identifier card, which qualifies them to sell foraged mushrooms in Michigan. The requirement of certification applies only to the sale of mushrooms — anyone can harvest them for personal use. However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources forbids selling mushrooms harvested from public lands. National parks forbid the harvesting of wild mushrooms altogether.

Bonito says foraged mushrooms have been sold in Michigan for ages, but it wasn’t until about 2014 that the FDA Food Code began to be more strictly enforced in relation to wild mushrooms, hence the need for a certification program.

“We were one of the first to develop [a program], and a lot of other states kind of modeled theirs after what Michigan was doing,” Bonito says. “The whole goal of this program is that people can get healthy food options and rural income can be made off some of these natural resources. But we want it to be done in a safe way.”

Of the estimated 2,500 mushroom species in Michigan, about 50 are known to be poisonous, including some that an untrained person might mistake for an edible mushroom (for instance, the false morel). To be sold, “not every basket of mushrooms, but every mushroom in the basket, has to be identified by a trained expert,” Bonito says.

How to Safely Prepare Wild Mushrooms, Courtesy of Gregory Bonito, President of MAMI

  • Always cook your mushrooms. A lot of people have reactions to otherwise edible mushrooms because they’re made out of lignin and we can’t really digest them. So if they’re not cooked, it can cause us GI distress. Tougher mushrooms like chicken of the woods you need to cook a little longer.”
  • “Try edible mushrooms a little bit at a time to make sure you know how you react, because some people have reactions to different fungi.”
  • “Morels are widely harvested and sold, but they are toxic if eaten raw, as are other mushrooms.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on June 6.