Mushroom Magic with Capstone Mushroom Owner Ryan Stabb
From lion’s mane to oyster, local forager turned farmer delights cooks and connoisseurs with fantastical fungus.
“They’ve been under our feet and beside us all through history,” says Ryan Stabb. What? Children? Dogs? Stones? No, Ryan Stabb, owner of Capstone Mushroom, was referring to the humble, hardworking fungus. Edible, medicinal and “recreational” mushrooms have a long and storied history, above and below ground.
For Stabb, a Virginia Beach native—who studied environmental science for a couple of years at ODU after graduating from Kempsville High School—the trip from farming to foraging was a natural progression. At the age of about 17, he lived for a time in Pennsylvania with his grandparents who farmed and gardened. He especially enjoyed growing cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and herbs with his grandma.
But he also loved exploring the wilderness and began to develop an appreciation for sustaining oneself off the land. Hiking eventually led to foraging for wild mushrooms. Though there are all sorts of ways to identify mushrooms that are safe to eat, including spore prints, Stabb took the practical route. Armed with a field guide to local mushrooms, he pursued 10 that are “highly recommended and fail proof.”
But it was the Lion’s Mane mushroom on the Appalachian trail that really stirred his passion. After one taste, he recalls “feeling an effect.” No, not that effect. He describes feeling “sharp” and a “synergy with the body.” It was only much later that he came across considerable research suggesting that mushrooms can help improve memory, “repair the brain,” and possibly even reverse dementia and Alzheimer’s.
But besides that, Stabb simply “enjoyed mushrooms so much.” After reading many books and attending online forums, “what had been like a foreign language started making sense.” And he stuck with it because he found it “challenging and rewarding, going down the rabbit hole of science.” Plus, there was the allure of those mushrooms his grandma sauteed simply in butter with garlic, onion and herbs, still his preferred method for cooking his gourmet ’shrooms.
After having earned a livelihood in printing, landscaping, painting, and electrical work, when Stabb had a son four years ago, things changed. When he was growing up, his dad was always away but, as a father, Stabb wanted to be closer to home. The idea of a mushroom farm emerged as a way to “solve some of the puzzle” of how to be in his son’s life more “and raise him a different way.”
In 2018, the relatively new dad drove to Oregon and interned with Peter McCoy at his Radical Mycology Collective mushroom farm, refining his skills. “On the drive back, I had a lot of time to think and came up with the name Capstone. I thought the name worked and I liked it.”
Next came the logo which features a pyramid with a radiant mushroom emerging from the top. On a banner beneath are the words, “Novus Ordo Sclerotium,” or, literally translated, “new order of a compact mass of mycelium.” There are “a lot of layers to the logo,” says Stabb, including a reference to the food pyramid, but also perhaps the mysterious “pyramid power,” not to mention the unfinished pyramid on the US dollar, a symbol for strength and duration.
Stabb’s indoor farm, previously in Suffolk, is now located in 2,000 square feet of space on Cleveland Street in Virginia Beach. Here he can grow year-round, utilizing vertical space. The mushrooms are grown on pseudo logs that he makes of sawdust held together by the mycelia.
Though Stabb is a formidable forager, he purchases tissue clones from commercial libraries because they offer the benefit of a quicker lifespan, good yield, good flavor and more predictability, which makes this option more commercially viable for his purposes. But, It is up to each farmer to preserve the genetics so you don’t have to keep buying them.” While most of his mushrooms are currently seasonal, if he secures funding, he might get climate-controlled green houses.
The forager turned farmer-entrepreneur says 2020 was a year of dabbling and selling to restaurants. This year will find Stabb at virtually all of the area farmer’s markets, from East Beach to Old Beach, and to Shore Drive, Ghent, O’Connor’s Brewery and Suffolk. Buyers can also order online and pickup at the Capstone storefront on Cleveland Street in Virginia Beach, currently on Mondays and Fridays from 9 to 5.
His mission? Raising awareness of urban farming and connecting people to local farmers, playing a role in modernizing agriculture, and educating the public about the say they can have in how they want to farm and utilize the land. That and selling some of the sexiest, fleshiest and most sculptural mushrooms imaginable. After tasting and cooking with a selection of mushrooms Stabb hand-delivered to me, I agree that there are exquisite textural and flavor differences. The King Trumpet and Blue-Gray Oyster Mushrooms had a voluptuous firmness, almost indescribable, while the Lion’s Mane variety, though firm, was simultaneously almost fluffy. The flavors of each mushroom boasted notes both subtle and assertive.
When cooked, the mushrooms become more dense and meaty, yet still delicate. According to Stabb, King Trumpets make a delicious plant-based bacon, though they are delicious sliced thinly and baked like chips or sliced thickly and seared like scallops; Lion’s Mane is prized for its ability to mimic shellfish in a dish, even crab cakes; and oyster mushrooms are more savory than, say, portobellos.
Two of Stabb’s favorite preparations—besides his grandmother’s—are mushroom jerky and fried mushrooms. With a plant-based diet, he missed beef jerky and has found that mushrooms provide “a healthy alternative to meat” and “satisfy a savory tooth.” For the fried fungi, he dips oyster mushrooms in a dairy-free pancake-like batter and then rolls them in cornmeal or breadcrumbs before deep frying. “People eat these and it stuns them.”
It probably goes without saying that shoppers should look for mushrooms that are not slimy or smelly. But Stabb also recommends avoiding those that have additional mushrooms growing off them. Capstone mushrooms are only one to two days old when they are sold at farmer’s markets and the grower recommends using them within one week, stored in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator. “There is something to getting mushrooms within 24 hours of being picked—they feel more full of life.”
To use, he does not recommend washing because they absorb too much moisture. Since Capstone mushrooms are grown on sawdust logs, Stabb advises simply wiping and cooking the moisture out.
Besides mushrooms, Capstone also sells Reishi Tea which is medicinal rather than culinary. Popular with niche groups, it grows well in the Appalachian mountains and has been linked to a long life and boosted immune system. Lion’s Mane powder, whose effects, says Stabb, are best with continual use, is not too savory and can be used in the likes of smoothies. Stabb also sells some of the supplies necessary for home-growing mushrooms with the stated intent of becoming “the mushroom guy.”
It has been said that mushrooms belong in a kingdom of their own, one different from both plants and animals. Indeed Stabb’s mushrooms are a world apart.
Learn more about Capstone Mushroom at CapstoneMushrooms.com.