Mico-lógica Alters our Perception of the Magic of Mushrooms in Oaxaca

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 6.08.16 PMAlvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

When we think of mushrooms and Oaxaca the first thing which comes to mind is María Sabina, Huautla de Jiménez, and hallucinogenic “magic” mushrooms. But slowly that’s all changing as a result of the groundbreaking work in mycology of Josefina Jiménez and Johann Mathieu, through their company Mico-lógica.

Based in the village of Benito Juárez, in Oaxaca’s Ixtlán district (the state’s main ecotourism region), Mico-lógica’s mission is to train both Mexicans and visitors to the country in the low-cost cultivation of a variety of mushroom species; to educate about the medicinal, nutritional and environmental value of mushrooms; and to conduct ongoing research regarding optimum climatic regions and the diversity of substrata for mushroom culture.

The French-born Mathieu moved to Mexico, in fact to Huautla de Jiménez, in 2005. “Yes, coming all the way to Mexico from France to pursue my interest in mushrooms seems a long way to travel,” Mathieu explains. “But there really wasn’t an opportunity to conduct studies and grow a business in Western Europe,” he continues, “since reverence for mushrooms had been all but completely eradicated by The Church over centuries; and I learned that Mexico still maintains a respect and appreciation for the medicinal and nutritional value of hongos.”

Huautla de Jiménez is more than a five hour drive from the closest metropolitan center. Accordingly, Mathieu eventually realized that staying in Huautla, while holding an historic allure and being in a geographic region conducive to working with mushrooms, would hinder his efforts to grow a business and cultivate interest in learning about fungi. He became cognizant of the burgeoning reputation of Oaxaca’s ecotourism communities of the Sierra Norte, and indeed the Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres (regional wild mushroom festival), held annually in Cuahimoloyas.

Mathieu met Josefina Jiménez at the summertime weekend mushroom event. Jiménez had moved to Oaxaca from hometown Mexico City in 2002.

The two shared similar interests; Jiménez had studied agronomy, and for close to a decade had been working with sustainable agriculture projects in rural farming communities in the Huasteca Potosina region of San Luis Potosí, the mountains of Guerrero and the coast of Chiapas. Mathieu and Jiménez became business, and then life partners in Benito Juárez.

Mathieu and Jiménez are concentrating on three mushroom species in their hands-on seminars; oyster (seta), shitake and reishi. Their one-day workshops are for oyster mushrooms, and two-day clinics for the latter two species. “With reishi, and to a lesser extent shitake, we’re also teaching about the medicinal uses of mushrooms, so more time is required,” says Mathieu, “and with oyster mushrooms it’s predominantly instruction on cultivation.”

While training seminars are currently given in Benito Juárez, the couple plans to expand operations to include both Oaxaca’s central valleys and coastal regions. The object is to have a network of producers growing different mushrooms which are optimally suited for cultivation based on the particular microclimate. There are about 70 sub-species of oyster mushroom which is remarkably adaptable to different climatic regions. “The oyster can be grown in a multitude of different substrata, and that’s what we’re experimenting with right now,” he elucidates. Oyster mushrooms can thrive when grown on products which would otherwise be waste, such as discard from cultivating beans, sugar cane, agave, peas, common river reed, sawdust, etc. Agricultural waste which may otherwise be left to rot or be burned, each with adverse environmental implications, can form substrata for mushroom cultivation. Mushroom cultivation is thus a highly sustainable, green industry.

Mathieu exemplifies how mushrooms can serve an arguably even greater environmental good: “They can hold up to thirty thousand times their mass, having implications for inhibiting erosion. They’ve been used to clean up oil spills through absorption and thus are an important vehicle for habitat restoration. Research has been done with mushrooms in the battle against carpenter ant destruction; it’s been suggested that the use of fungi has the potential to completely revamp the pesticide industry in an environmentally friendly way. There are literally hundreds of other eco-friendly applications for mushroom use, and in each case the mushroom remains an edible by-product.

Mathieu and Jiménez often sell their products on weekends in the organic markets in Oaxaca (i.e. Xochimilco). They particularly enjoy discussing the nutritional value of mushrooms including fresh mushrooms and their preserves marinated with either chipotle and nopal or jalapeño and cauliflower. The mushroom’s vitamin B12 cannot be found in fruits or vegetables, and accordingly a diet which includes fungi is important for vegetarians who cannot get B12, most often contained in meats. Mushrooms can form a meat substitute, with the advantage that they are not loaded with antibiotics and hormones often found in industrially processed meat products.

Mico-lógica also sells teas and extracts made from different mushroom species, each formulated as either a nutritional supplement or for their medicinal properties. While neither Mathieu nor Jiménez has the pharmacological background to prescribe mycological treatment for serious ailments, Mathieu’s own research points to the medicinal use of mushrooms dating from pre-history to the present. He notes properties of mushrooms which can help to restore the immune system, and thus the use of fungi as a complement in the treatment of cancer and AIDS, and their utility in controlling diabetes and treating high cholesterol.

“Each of us should embrace organic production of mushrooms,” Mathieu concludes. “It’s so easy, it involves a minimal capital investment, and it provides significant rewards, both for those ingesting hongos for nutritional and medicinal reasons, and for the producers, even small scale. Mico-lógica also sells dried mushrooms. Yet most of the dried mushrooms sold in Mexico are imported from China, and are not organic. It’s a real shame on numerous levels.”

Mexico and mushrooms have come a long way since the era of Oaxaca’s María Sabina. With the continued efforts of Micológica, it shouldn’t be long before the world understands and embraces the magic of mushrooms within a much broader context. www.micologica.mex.tl

Alvin Starkman traveled to Huautla de Jiménez to experience the magic of mushrooms in the 1960s.

A former Toronto litigation lawyer, Alvin now lives in Oaxaca where he takes couples and families to sights around Oaxaca’s central valleys, works with documentary film companies, and writes about life and cultural traditions in the region. Alvin and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast www.casamachaya.com

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