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Takoma Park’s ‘Mushroom Joe’ brings fresh fungi to market


[Release date]2012-09-19[source]Lindsay A. Powers
[Core hints]Joe Valenti is known as a fun guy.That is, the Takoma Park resident is an avid fan of mushrooms, which he has become wel
Joe Valenti is known as a “fun guy.”
That is, the Takoma Park resident is an avid fan of mushrooms, which he has become well acquainted with as a student, grower and now seller of the fungi.
Valenti, 29, or “Mushroom Joe,” has been offering his homegrown and foraged mushrooms, accompanied with cooking and other advice, at several Washington, D.C., farmers markets since mid-June.
His stand at the Palisades Farmers Market on Sunday was filled with chanterelles, shiitakes and various oyster mushrooms.
“Every time we bring more and more,” Valenti said, and customers are grabbing them up.
He said he cultivates about 300 to 400 pounds per month of mainly oyster and shiitake mushrooms in two greenhouses behind his home, which he has modified to include insulation, humidification systems and air filters. The equipment and trial-and-error process cost thousands of dollars, he said.
Valenti, who also occasionally works as a geophysical contractor, said he grew interested in the multi-faceted fungi as he visited numerous countries around the world, such as Argentina, Turkey and Australia.
“I’d see these mushrooms popping up everywhere,” he said.
He said he also wanted to produce an alternative to the specialty mushrooms he found in stores where he saw a lack of quality and variety.
And so began his journey as a mushroom buff, in which he has accumulated knowledge of the tasty, the medicinal and even the historical qualities of many mushrooms.
Valenti said the golden oyster mushrooms can either have a seafood or nutty flavor depending on how long they are cooked.
“Every mushroom species has a different taste and texture,” he said.
The reishi mushroom, on the other hand, only is medicinal, and can be used to make tea or soaked in vodka to either calm or boost the immune system depending on the individual.
Valenti said about 90 percent of what he and his wife, Sarah Bienkowski, sell at market is homegrown, but he also sells wild mushrooms handpicked from spots such as West Virginia and Catoctin Mountain. After years of research and experience, Valenti knows how to carefully identify mushrooms and avoid the poisonous ones.
“We can spend 8-hour days in the woods,” he said, filling sacks and baskets with mushrooms such as chicken of the woods that, yes, actually taste like chicken.
He said both he and Bienkowski, 27, a lawyer, have developed the ability to spot mushrooms in their natural habitats.
“She’s got a great eye,” he said of Bienkowski, who he said pushed him to sell his mushrooms.
Bienkowski said Valenti already was into mushrooms when they met, and she has since joined in on the action.
“I never noticed them before I got into this,” she said, describing their foraging trips.
Laila Shouhayib, of Washington, D.C., said she visited the Palisades Farmers Market on Sunday because she knew Valenti’s mushrooms would be there, which she had cooked recently for her son when he was home from college.
“I made him a really nice omelette,” Shouhayib said. “He was floored by it.”
“You can tell they’re fresh,” she added.
Jeremy Mohler and Dawn Witmore, both of Washington, D.C., visited the stand on Sunday for the first time to pick up some mushrooms for a cream sauce, and said it was nice to buy mushrooms that would not get “funky” in store packaging.
“It’s totally cool that it’s that fresh,” Witmore said.
In addition to the Palisades Farmers Market, the 14th and U Farmers Market and the Brookland Farmers Market, Valenti’s mushrooms also will be available at the Takoma Park Farmers Market for a few dates in October. Valenti said local chefs and large-scale distributors also have expressed interest in his mushrooms.
Although he still is exploring which direction to take the new business, he said there is a demand for mushrooms.
“For some reason, fungi have escaped our attention until recently,” Valenti said.
 
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