Cascadia Mushrooms: Bellingham’s Mushroom Mainstay

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You may not realize how familiar you already are with Cascadia Mushrooms. Have you ever wondered where the delectable shiitakes in your Vodka Cream Linguini at D’Anna’s Cafe Italiano or the delicate oyster mushrooms in your Fusilli Pasta at Boundary Bay Brewery come from?

Those of you that are familiar with long-standing stall at the Bellingham’s Saturday Farmers’ Market may have sauntered by and curiously eyed the mystical grow-your-own mushroom kits as I have, or perhaps Cascadia is your weekly stop to purchase fresh mushrooms for whatever special dish you’re cooking up.

I was lucky enough to grab a beer with not only Alex Winstead, the man behind the mushrooms, but also his wife Isabelle and her mother Christie recently, and got the full scoop on one of the this area’s largest mushroom growers.

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Tyler, Alex’s employee, tending to the Stand

Alex’s interest in mushrooms began as a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia. As a student of environmental science, his focus was studying mushrooms, and he quickly learned how to grown them in a commercial setting. His interest grew outside of his studies as well. After college, he moved up to Bellingham where his passion for mushrooms led to a small mushroom cultivating business in his garage.

He started vending at the farmers’ market at that point, which makes Cascadia Mushrooms 11 years strong. The business has grown rapidly during that time. Alex bought property to set up his farm, hired on six employees, and expanded his customer base substantially.

IMG_2446Now, in addition to finding Cascadia’s mushrooms at the market, you can find them in some Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, and at the Food Co-op, or on your plate at D’Anna’s, Rock N’ Rye, Boundary Bay or Mount Bakery, during the farmer’s market off-season.

With a current yearly production rate up to 26,000 lbs., their mushrooms are a local favorite and are popping up in more places all over Bellingham and the surrounding area.

Mushrooms are a bit of a mystery to me, so I had to ask about the process of growing them, especially in such a huge amount. Alex led with the fact that mushrooms are decomposers, so they need a substrate (the substance that is decomposed by the mushroom). In other words, they digest what they grow on. In the Cascadia Mushrooms greenhouses, they use a mixture of sawdust and grain and make sure to sterilize to kill off competing fungi and bacteria.

IMG_2434Next, they introduce the culture. When it’s ready, the mushrooms begin to grow. In the greenhouse, they simulate the seasons since it is a controlled environment. When the mushrooms are at their prime, they are harvested, processed, and quickly delivered to ensure the freshest, most flavorful mushrooms available.

The work doesn’t end with production though, Alex and the farm’s employee, Garrett co-teach workshops that are open to the public for those that are interested in starting a small mushroom production at home.

Isabelle, self-proclaimed “cheerleader” of the business, also helps with the workshops and gives tours of the farm. In their free time, all of the employees also double as avid wild mushroom foragers.

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A few of the mushrooms you can find in their collection include the Golden Oyster, a delicate, “canary-yellow” variety, Lion’s Mane, wild Chanterelles, Red Reishi, and the most popular, the Shiitake. The strangest variety they have grown? A glow-in-the dark species!

With so much expertise on growing mushrooms, I figured Alex and Isabelle must have plenty of experience cooking and eating them as well.

Alex described one of his favorite recipes — simply the combinations of butter, garlic and salt, sautéed with almost any variety of mushroom. Isabelle jumped in and listed more mushroom-filled meal ideas than I could make in a week.

She recommends including mushrooms in stuffing, risotto, omelets and pasta; and even gave me a quick recipe for baked or grilled mushroom caps, suggesting mixing two parts olive oil with one part soy sauce, adding your favorite herbs and garlic, tossing the mixture together and baking or grilling for 20 minutes. This is on my personal list to try out next.

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Alex also added that mushrooms are high in protein and vitamin D, something we all need a little more of in this part of the world!

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With their combined food interest, I was curious as to the restaurants they frequent. They listed many of the same that use their mushrooms, of course, including Café Rumba, Adrift in Anacortes, and Tweets and Mariposa in Edison.

Next time you are dining out around Bellingham, check out the mushrooms that end up in your meal. With the number of mushrooms that Alex and his employees produce and their vast network in and around Bellingham, there is a strong possibility that those shiitakes came straight from Cascadia Mushrooms.