Food & Drink

Wild mushrooms foraged in South Carolina not on the menu

Cremini are the George Hamiltons of the mushroom world, sporting a perpetually tanned complexion. (Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Cremini are the George Hamiltons of the mushroom world, sporting a perpetually tanned complexion. (Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT) MCT

Chef Richard Wilson has a few choice spots, places he often goes to forage for wild elderberries, violets and several other ingredients that wind up in dishes and on plates at his restaurant, Maggie's Pub in Habersham.

On his trips into the woods, Wilson frequently spots large patches of edible, wild mushrooms of several varieties, including the exotic golden or orange chanterelle, a mushroom he says would command a price of about $40 a pound in kitchens across the country.

And every time he does, Wilson, known for his locavore, farm-to-table cuisine, must make the heartbreaking decision to leave the tasty fungi behind.

"They can't come in my restaurant," Wilson said. "And it kills me, because they're everywhere."

It's not only Wilson who can't serve local wild mushrooms -- no chef in South Carolina can.

The state remains one of only three that still bars the service or sale of wild, foraged mushrooms in restaurants, a policy spelled out in the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's Retail Food Establishment Code.

Edible mushrooms that grow in South Carolina include morels, other varieties of chanterelles, oyster, Chicken of the Woods and maitake.

If chefs like Wilson want the wild oyster or maitake mushrooms on their menus, they must rely on out-of-state suppliers, which several experts say doesn't make sense.

"Most chefs and supermarkets were and still are shipping in mushrooms collected in other states which (lack) any kind of tracking or accountability," said Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain in Liberty. "So, enforcing our native collectors and not out-of-state suppliers ... is a problem."

State regulators don't necessarily disagree.

"We are currently working on a revision of (that) regulation that would adopt the newer (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) code ... that could result in the easing of that restriction somewhat," said Jim Beasley, DHEC spokesman. "However, until a new regulation is passed and safeguards are in place, we must stay within the current restriction of allowing no wild mushrooms in (restaurants)."

Beasley added that the current FDA code allows for "mushrooms that are individually inspected and found to be safe by a mushroom identification expert" to be served but sets no standard for what would make someone an expert.

Establishing such guidelines is exactly what Cotter and others hope DHEC will do.

"We want the state to set up a program that sets standards for mushroom identification experts who can easily spot and forage the edible species of mushrooms that we have in South Carolina that can be sold in restaurants," said Lisa Turansky of the Coastal Conservation League. "Ultimately, what we need in South Carolina is a safe and healthy system for the foraging and distribution of mushrooms."

Turansky said such a system would unlock an as-yet untapped sector of the state's agricultural sector and benefit chefs who want to be using the most fresh, local ingredients possible.

"It's a win-win," Turansky said.

The public comment period on the proposed revision ended March 27. It is unclear when a decision on mushrooms will be made by state officials.

Consumer safety seems to be foremost on the mind of DHEC officials as they consider the possible change as several varieties of local mushrooms found across the state are poisonous and even deadly.

"The restriction exists because most varieties of wild mushrooms are poisonous, and only a trained mushroom expert can safety identify and harvest mushrooms that are edible," Beasley said.

While he would like to see the state adopt a new regulation, Wilson said he understands the need to safely regulate the sale of wild mushrooms.

"All of the chefs in Beaufort are pretty close with each other, and we know each other pretty well, but there's only one or two who I would trust to serve me a wild mushroom they'd picked themselves," Wilson said. "If you serve someone the wrong mushroom, it can be very, very dangerous."

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South Carolina's regulation on mushrooms

Mushrooms that grow wild in South Carolina