What I Do: Nicola Macpherson of Ozark Forest Mushrooms
Nicola Macpherson’s office smells like truffles. Some people don’t like it, but she’s a big fan, which isn’t surprising when you consider her entire life has been spent working in nature. Macpherson grew up in the United Kingdom, where she did everything from teaching science and making cheese to tending a vegetable garden and canning produce.
Today, she runs Ozark Forest Mushrooms. In addition to growing fungi on inoculated oak logs at her husband’s family farm in the Ozarks and distributing them to countless local restaurants and shops, she also makes products like dried mushrooms, mushroom powders, truffle salts and even hot sauces. Here’s a closer look at how Macpherson has cornered the mushroom market in St. Louis.
“I met my husband when he was doing a junior year abroad program at the same university I was at in Yorkshire. He was from Tulane University. To cut a long story short, I came over here for a holiday about 10 years later. We really connected, so I flew to St. Louis. I had no idea how big this country was. I thought we could just go to New Orleans for the day. We got married the year after that.”
“I started as a hobby, and then it became a commercial enterprise. So, we started off with six logs – mushroom oak logs – and then it went to a hundred. A thousand the next year. This year, we did 6,700 logs. That was more than we’ve ever done.”
“[The use of oak logs] is Asian; they’ve been doing it for centuries. It’s not just Japan – they’ve been doing it in Korea, China. The name is Japanese: shiitake. ‘Shii’ is like an oak tree in Japan, and ‘take’ means mushroom in Japanese, so it means ‘mushroom from the oak tree.’”
“I don’t throw anything away. If they get wet in a storm, or something happens and I can’t sell, we de-stem them and put them in dryers. All the stalks, I make into powders. Waste not, want not. I think that whole movement’s going on in the food industry too: not wasting any products, reusing things. I think farmers are having to do it too. We’ve been doing it for years.”
“The benefit of growing on a full oak log versus in sawdust is flavor. If I’m a chef, I’d say flavor, by far. The shelf life on them is great, and you can get all these different variations. Right now, we have the donko shiitake, which is that thick cap with a cracked top. You only find those dried in Asian stores – you can’t buy them fresh, but we have them fresh. They’re highly regarded in Japan, they’re like a Grade 1 shiitake. They’re called the ‘flower shiitake.’ That sets us apart.”
“I always say simple is best. I always say simple is best. I hate to chop them up. If I can keep them whole, I like to just take the stem off – it doesn’t matter how big or small they are. I like to saute them in a little butter or olive oil, salt and pepper, and then I love to buy bourbon-smoked paprika and sprinkle a little bit of that on them. I get it at Larder & Cupboard. And I always cook with cast-iron skillets, the Ozark way.”
Adam Rothbarth is a staff writer at Sauce Magazine.
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