To forage or not to forage? That is the question. Chefs across the United States are continuing to demand specialty products for their menu items. One of these diversifying and emerging categories is foraged mushrooms.
“Chefs are constantly looking for items that bring interesting flavors, combinations, and a uniqueness that may have previously been unfamiliar to the masses. This trend has snowballed into an increased demand from consumers for these items at the retail level,” Todd Kostka, who runs To-Jo Mushrooms’ wild edible program, tells me.
And most importantly, retailers are responding. Offering these items provides retailers with a distinct outlet to standout from their competitors. The great thing about utilizing a foraged mushroom program is that the varieties are always changing with the seasons, providing a never-ending mix of mushrooms that grow naturally in the wild. Consider them the ancestors of the commercially cultivated varieties we are most familiar with.
“At To-Jo, if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right. Our owners, Tony and Joe D'Amico, treated this no differently; fully investing themselves in this new side of our business. This past summer I spent a week foraging with the individuals we source our products from,” Todd says. “By taking part in every aspect of their business, I increased my knowledge of the varieties, learned best handling practices, and gained invaluable experience that I was able to bring back to our customers, further strengthening our program.”
Todd was familiar with foraged items prior to the start of the program and, because of this interest, Tony and Joe selected him as the lead in exploring the program’s potential.
“The culture here at To-Jo has always promoted new ideas and creativity among all employees. I developed the plans for the program and we were off and running,” he notes.
"At To-Jo, if we're going to do something, we're going to do it right. Our owners, Tony & Joe D'Amico, treated this no different."
So, which varieties stand out in the To-Jo program? The Chanterelle is often the first wild mushroom to be mentioned when polling knowledge and buying behaviors.
“This is due to the relatively long availability of fresh product; almost six full months when you take into account both domestic and imported product,” Todd says.
Following Chanterelles are Morel and Porcini mushrooms, varieties that have been renowned in European cuisine, including French andItalian, for ages.
“Green is typically a first sign of spring and it is the same with wild edibles,” Todd adds. “Spring starts with Stinging Nettles and varieties of Miners Lettuce, and then we move into the ever-popular spring varieties of Fiddlehead Ferns and Ramps, both of which have seasons lasting roughly one full month.”
Todd has his favorites, and they are the same whether he is purveying or preparing- the Hedgehog and Cauliflower mushrooms. The Cauliflower mushroom begins appearing in mid-September and has a distinct florally/wavy, off-white texture and color.
“The Hedgehog often falls into the shadow of the Chanterelle; as Chanterelle’s season comes to an end, the Hedgehog’s begins. Both have a slightly similar appearance, but the Hedgehog’s flavor and taste are superior in every way to the Chanterelle,” says Todd.
Hedgehogs thrive in the winter months and have a pleasant fruity aroma that matches their bright orange/yellow color- a nice offering during the darker and colder winter months, especially here on the East Coast,” notes Todd.
It has been one year since To-Jo launched Foraged Fresh and the program continues to expand with both volume and overall items available. With differentiation driving the innovative programs at To-Jo, we believe that you won’t have to forage too hard to find new ways to diversify your fare.