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In This Place

A Shiitake Tradition Continues in the Woods of Truro

Uli Winslow is always on the hunt for white oak wood.

"You use fresh cut oak in the spring and drill holes, and put mycelium into it, it’s a sawdust spawn," Uli said.

Uli’s talking about shiitake spawn—small sawdust plugs inoculated with the mycelium or reproductive vegetation that grows shiitake mushrooms. Shiitakes are native to southeast Asia, where they’re usually found on decaying deciduous trees.

Uli says it pretty much translates to oak mushroom.

Ancient records date the earliest recorded shiitake cultivation to around 1200 AD during the Song Dynasty in China. Historically growers cut down hardwood trees near known wild shiitake stands and the fungi colonized these freshly cut trees. Shiitake mushroom cultivation got popular in the United States in the 1980s, and the basic method is still pretty much the same. After Uli drills holes in the logs—about 50 to 100 for each roughly 2-3 foot log—and fills these holes with shiitake spawn, he stacks them into square piles that look kind of like Lincoln log buildings.

“And then they sit for a full year, and then they’ll start to fruit once the whole log is colonized.”

He shows me one with the holes. The logs were done in 2018 he things, about 1800 logs total.

“They’re all capped and now they’re starting to fruit. It’s still cold at night, you know, really they don’t start jamming until it’s 50s or so, and they’ll fruit for four years or so. You can let them fruit naturally in the rain. Or, you can soak them,” Uli said.

Mushrooms need a lot of moisture to fruit—and Uli sells his at local farmers markets, so to keep his supply consistent, he soaks his logs in large black tubs that he keeps next to the stacks in the woods.

”Yeah these are all soaked in the past few weeks, so now they’re just starting to get rolling. This time of year because of the temperature fluctuations and humidity fluctuations you get these beautiful they’re called dankos. And that’s them cracking as they grow, they’re stopping growing during the night and starting again during the day.”

I ask if they’re specific to a shiitake.

“Other mushrooms will do the same effects but these are the most desirable shiitakes and some people say they’re more flavorful, I think there’s a bit of a difference. There’s definitely a difference when you grow a shiitake outdoors opposed to indoors on say like a sawdust block just because it’s a more complex food source it brings out more flavor. And um, they have a really nice woodsy umami flavor. It pairs well with stuff like meat, shiitakes next to caramelized onions with a steak is good.”

Uli estimates this year he’ll get about 1800 pounds of shiitakes from 3200 fruiting logs.

He learned how to grow shiitakes with his dad.

“My dad had been growing since 1990 or so, so I kinda grew up learning that and I kinda started doing it I think 2016 was my first couple stacks I did. I taught myself how to grow indoors and that really brought out a lot of consistency, it’s a much quicker process, but I don’t want to grow shiitakes indoors because the flavor just isn’t there.”

The flavor comes from the weather and the wood. So each spring Uli Winslow collects and inoculates more than 1,000 white oak logs and gets them ready for another season.

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Uli’s dad was one of the first people Elspeth ever interviewed for the Local Food Report—way back in 2008. Here’s that conversation:

Julie Winslow Interview June 2008