Mike Montiel’s descriptions of his mushrooms fall somewhere between a good scotch and an alien lifeform. He calls oyster mushrooms “earthy and nutty” and speaks endearingly about the lion’s mane’s “pillowy, long tendrils. Each one of the tendrils grows out and as they grow out they grow together,” he says. “So at the tips you see these almost hair-like structures that you can pet. It’s very soft.” When you get up the nerve to “cut them up and cook them, their flavor is almost like salty shellfish and ocean.”
He can tell you the best way to cook blue oyster mushrooms—sautéed with butter and seasoned to taste—but he’s just as excited to talk about the potential for fungi in agriculture, architecture, and remediation. “The applications for fungi have the capability to help any community,” says Montiel, who grew up in Superior and is one half of Symbiotic Farms, a Superior-based business that grows gourmet mushrooms.
Montiel was born in Phoenix, but came to Superior in second grade. It was a homecoming of sorts—his mom was from Superior and moved her family back to help in Mike’s grandma’s flower shop on Main Street, The Nifty Nook. After four years in the Army, Montiel enrolled in ASU, and initially started out on the track to study medicine.
He was turned off by what he calls the “red tape and bureaucracy” inherent in the medical field, but was enamored with his studies of math and science. “I’d stay up with science news. I’d sit and read the research papers and abstracts. That stuff interests me,” says Montiel. Not surprisingly for a guy who stays up at night reading science literature, Montiel’s knowledge of mushrooms is entirely self-taught.
A friend of his had grown mushrooms as a hobby and, Montiel explains, “after I graduated from ASU, he approached me because he wanted to start growing as a business.” The pair started out cultivating mushrooms in Scottsdale, but quickly realized that they’d get more bang for their buck in Superior and moved the operation there. “I took one side of my garage and retrofitted it to put in misters,” says Montiel of hacking their production facility. “I insulated it, put in plastic, and started growing mushrooms in there.” Mushrooms breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like humans do, so the space where they’re grown must allow for regulation of airflow in addition to controlling moisture.
Right now, the pair isn’t producing mushrooms because they’re working on upgrading their facility, but prior to the upgrade they maintained a handful of restaurant accounts in Scottsdale. Atlas Bistro made a lion’s mane pizza with Montiel’s mushrooms that sold out nearly every time it was on the menu. The award-winning FnB used his blue oyster mushrooms in a white wine sauce over pasta. Montiel matter-of-factly reports, “I tried it and it was ridiculous.”
Not surprisingly, one of the things that sold Montiel on the mushroom business was taste. “Most people, when you’re talking about mushrooms, they know crimini mushrooms, they know button mushrooms. They’re mushrooms, but they don’t have a lot of flavor. If they do, it’s very subtle and it’s not very appetizing.”
The mushrooms Montiel cultivates are different. “The mushrooms we grow are oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane mushrooms, and shiitakes. These are all mushrooms that have incredible flavors by themselves. You can cook them up with just butter and salt.” Montiel is an evangelist for these lesser-known, higher-quality mushrooms. “When I talk to people and they say they don’t like mushrooms, I tell them ‘you haven’t tried mine yet,’” he says with a laugh. He’s tricked more than one friend into thinking the lion’s mane mushrooms in their tacos were chicken. He describes their texture as “very dense and meaty” once cooked.
The mushrooms’ parallels to meat don’t stop there. Montiel explains that “the amount of protein in some varieties in comparable with beef.” As a result, “there are some organizations right now in impoverished regions of the world teaching them to grow mushrooms because they’re lacking a protein source, whether it be livestock or hunting.”
Montiel is quick to note that the possibilities for fungi reach far beyond the plate. He hopes that cultivating mushrooms will be a starting point for his business to move beyond the culinary realm. “If we can show people, ‘Ok, we can grow mushrooms, then we can talk people into letting us try to do mycoremediation. If we can show that works, then we can try to talk them into letting us take the old tailings—the really bad stuff—and see what we can do with that, see if we can improve that.”
Mycoremediation is the process of using fungi to break down contaminants in the environment and Montiel thinks there’s incredible potential for mycoremediation in and around mines here in the copper corridor. “We had a meeting with Resolution Copper about coming out and doing a [mycoremediation] test site,” says Montiel “to try and show them, ‘if you want to do this in 15 years, keep doing what you’re doing. If you want to do it in seven years, you could try this.’”
Montiel calls fungi, “the world’s great composter,” adding, “it has the ability to make healthy soil, to remediate oil spills, to actually digest polyurethane and hydrocarbons.” Its capability to break down some materials is unparalleled. Montiel explains that “using the right fungi they’re finding now that they can break down just about any material. So plastics that they thought were going to take thousands of years to decompose are going to—not decompose entirely—but take that first step toward decomposition.”
Montiel’s favorite thing about mushrooms is all the possibilities they hold, “all of the science that hasn’t been discovered yet.” That said, he’s pretty excited about the ways they’re currently being used too. “They’ve actually started making building materials out of mycelium,” the white filaments, often underground, that form the main growth structure of a fungus. Mushrooms are actually fruiting bodies created by the mycelium. Montiel says that mycelium is especially suited for structural uses because “it’s lightweight and fire retardant. It retains temperature really well, so it’s one of those things that has an equalizing effect: if it’s cold outside it warms inside, if it’s hot outside it cools inside.”
Montiel explains that mycorrhizal fungi attach to roots of plants and form a symbiotic relationship. “The plant has more access to water and nutrients and the fungi gets the sugars that the plant produces […] Just about every plant you see has some kind of mycorrhizals attached to its root system. What those mycorrhizals do is they create this whole other network that can channel in water, nutrients, everything. It’s an exponential force for these plants.”
More mycorrhizals mean faster growing and more drought-resistant plants and as Montiel points out, it’s not hard to see the application for mycorrhizal fungi “in agricultural contexts like farms where you’re trying to get the most out of a crop without damaging the environment or putting all these chemicals in. These mycorrhizals are a naturally occurring organism that is completely beneficial to the crop.” Montiel wrapped up a three-part lecture series at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum at the end of 2015 on just these sort of topics.
He’s optimistic about a future in which mushrooms play a role in improving how we build, live, and grow: “They’re only starting to discover all the applications of fungi—what it does and how it does it.”
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.