Fungi fun with 'the prize of a downward-cast eye'

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Christopher Kearse , chef/owner of Will BYOB, displays a Chicken of the Woods mushroom.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Christopher Kearse , chef/owner of Will BYOB, displays a Chicken of the Woods mushroom.
Posted: October 25, 2013

HEATHER McMonnies-Fetter is a mother to a boy named Leif, a girl named Cymbeline and an army of pungent, sensitive children who demand her constant love and attention.

"I've got two little human babies," she said, "and 2,000 mushroom babies to take care of eight days a week."

Three years ago, Heather, an art historian, and her husband, Norm, a woodworker, musician and painter, sold their house in Fishtown and hunkered down on a 5.5-acre wooded plot in Spring City, about an hour northwest of the city. It's home to both their growing family and their growing business: Woodland Jewel Mushrooms, a specialized fungi operation providing area restaurants with what Heather passionately describes as "the jewels of the forest floor - the prize of a downward-cast eye."

For years, the Fetters were city slickers. Heather worked at the Barnes Foundation, Morris Arboretum and Philadelphia Museum of Art; Norm found residential and commercial carpentry work, and performed and recorded his own music under the name Enumclaw. They gardened and hosted parties and shows in their back yard, all while Norm pursued a lifelong fascination as a serious at-home hobbyist.

"I'd always been interested in mushrooms," he said. "There's something amazing and magical about these things that just pop up overnight."

"It used to be a joke, Norm's mycology," said Heather. " 'Oh, Norm's in [the] 'spore lab' again, I'm going to go to the bar!' Little did I know it was going to lead to this family business that I'm very thankful for."

"We knew we weren't going to commute to Philly for jobs," said Norm, who initially found the Spring City plot, "appearing like a mirage on the market," and capitalized on the opportunity to go country so fast that some friends didn't even realize they'd left Fishtown till they were already gone. "We knew we had to get something going here."

Going underground

Shortly after the birth of their son, now 3 (he constantly refers to mushrooms as "mooshas"), the couple made the big decision to ramp up the mushroom-growing to a commercial level. Leaning on connections fostered by their friends at True Leaf, in nearby Phoenixville, the Fetters hand-built an elaborate growing operation, fully embracing the farmer's life.

Yet, Woodland Jewel is not a traditional farm in any sense. "When people hear the word, they think cows, bucolic acreage and earthworms," said Heather. "This is a much different look and feel than your classic sort of farm, with a red barn and chickens running around."

For starters, the bulk of the work is done indoors. Using his construction experience, Norm built a series of purposely muggy basement rooms housing what Heather jokingly describes as "postmodern art installation body bags." They're actually hanging, plastic-wrapped cylinders of pasteurized local wheat straw imbued with what's called spawn - here, sterilized rye grain inoculated with mycelium that they isolate in their home lab.

Depending on variety - right now they're cultivating three types of oysters, plus lion's mane, chicken of the woods and shiitakes sprouting from sawdust blocks - the couple harvests as often as four times a day, delivering to their restaurants twice a week. (Clients include Russet, White Dog, the Fountain and Majolica.) Eventually, they hope to transfer all their growing to hardwood logs, which produce more complex flavors.

"I don't think there's a more polarizing food," said Heather, citing the common aversion to mushrooms - especially ones that look as exotic and "Avatar"-like as Woodland's offerings. Reaction from chefs, thankfully, has been the absolute opposite.

Where there's a Will

Last Tuesday, Chris Kearse, of East Passyunk's Will BYOB, hosted a creative themed tasting featuring the Fetters' products.

Kearse, who learned about Woodland Jewel after Heather fired off a bunch of 'shroom photos to him (they regularly make sales using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), created a mystical opening course that he called "Mushroom Forest" - lion's manes ("looks like something from a coral reef") grilled over Japanese charcoal, and chicken of the woods roasted with acorns, interplaying with elements like escargot, poached quail egg and huitlacoche puree.

Heather and Norm, who attended the dinner, likened the experience to "someone bringing us pure art every 15 minutes." The event also served as a reminder of Woodland's niche in the fungi business: Even though they're just a 40-minute drive from Kennett Square, the self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world, they take a specialized and client-customizable approach that can be achieved only on a smaller operational scale.

Still, they're poised to expand. The couple produce about 100 pounds a week of output, a number that looks to quadruple next year, once they transfer the operation to the 2,500-foot barn adjacent to their house.

"It's a nice balance of using both sides of my brain," said Norm of the mix of empirical and creative thought that goes into running the business. "My dad is an engineer, so I have part of that, but all my training is in arts and music. There's something about mycology that draws together both. I can nerd out on designing a humidifier system, duct work and incubation rooms, but there's also the pure visual beauty of watching these things grow."

That goes for more than just mushrooms. Heather's grateful that her day-to-day goings-on, whether personal or professional, allow her to spend mostly all of her time with her (human) children.

"Family and business - it's all mixed together," she said. "These four hands pushing this little farm forward. It blows 9 to 5 out of the water."


More on Woodland Jewel Mushrooms at woodlandjewel.com.


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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