MEANS MORE MAGICAL TRUFFLES FOR THE NETHERLANDS
By Hamilton Morris
Photos by Hamilton Morris and Santiago Stelley
In the bucolic pastures of Hazerswoude-Dorp, nestled in verdant fields of ruminating Holsteins, lazy windmills, and pert tulips, lies a quaint Dutch farm that functions as the world's largest psilocybin-containing-truffle factory. To be clear, the truffles this farm produces, often called philosopher's stones, are not technically truffles (or stones) but rather a distinct fungal propagule that serves a separate biological function from that of a mushroom.
The mushroom constitutes the reproductive body, or "fruit," of the fungus from which spores are dispersed; upon germination these spores combine to form a fluffy network of threads called mycelium. If the conditions are not correct for the mycelium to organize itself into mushrooms, certain species will form tangled clumps of mycelial tissue called sclerotia. In 2008, the Dutch government banned virtually every known psilocybin-mushroom species but neglected to outlaw the humble hypogeal sclerotium. Overnight these scleroid nuggets of fungal flesh—truffles—became the only legal source of psilocybin in the Netherlands, and so I flew to Amsterdam to learn about their history and propagation. When I arrived at the Magic Truffles farm, its two proprietors, known as the Truffle Brothers, were unpacking a "realistic" five-foot-tall plastic alien and making plans to dress the alien like Bob Marley and construct a large faux joint for it to smoke. We sat down for a chat.
VICE: Who are you, and what is your business?
Ali: My name is Ali. Next to me is my brother, Murat. We are known as the Truffle Brothers. You're here at the farm of Magic Truffles. We produce sclerotia, also known as magic truffles, here in Hazerswoude-Dorp, which is approximately 30 kilometers south of Amsterdam.
How did you get into the truffle business?
Murat: I was operating a pizzeria. Above my restaurant was a crack guy who exchanged crack products with those guys who hijack… What are these people who hijack buildings called? Squatters.
Murat: Yes, right. So these squatters exchanged mushrooms that they found in the wild for the crack products of the guy above my pizzeria. This crack guy came to me and gave me a small bag of what appeared to be white pubic hair. It was kind of gross, so I threw it in the drawer and forgot about it. A week or so later I retuned to the bag and saw that it was beginning to fruit mushrooms! So I went with this bag of mushrooms to my brother and said, "I would like to create more of these." Ali had just finished with his mushroom project in Poland, and so we decided to start a business together. What was your mushroom project in Poland?
Ali: I was a supervisor on an international white-button-mushroom project. This was a really large grow project with a canning factory behind it. So I was already part of the mushroom-cultivation network, though a very different part. While I was working on the white-button project, a friend of mine came up to me and showed me some spores he had collected on a petri dish. He told me, "It's a magic mushroom." I'd never heard of such a thing, so I took a closer look. I went to a friend of mine who owned a mycological laboratory and asked him, "Can we do something with these spores?" He said, "Well, let's give it a try." After several weeks there was only one mushroom in the aquarium, but it was a giant mushroom. I gave it to a friend, and he told me it was amazing. Apparently he was talking to deer and trees and flowers. That was, for me, the signal, "OK, this is good, let's continue with this." That's how it all happened, that and Murat's encounter with the, uh, crack guy upstairs.
Did you start at this farm?
Ali:We started much smaller.
Murat: We actually started in my daughter's bedroom, with a single aquarium of mushrooms.
Ali: We were searching the streets each night for people who were throwing out their old aquariums. That was like a kind of mushroom hunt of its own. We would say, "There's one!" and pick up the aquarium. Before long, the room was filled with them.
Murat: Yes, my daughter's room was filled with dozens of mushroom aquariums… but it wasn't enough. We couldn't grow enough mushrooms to meet the demand. So that's when we tried to cooperate with gourmet-mushroom growers. Unfortunately, those projects did not work out very well. So in 1994 we moved the operation out of my daughter's bedroom and rented our first commercial grow facility not far from here, in a town called Langeraar. It was just a building we made out of some sheds with shelves in them. From there we started to supply the Dutch smart shops with mushrooms. I've read that mushrooms reached their peak of popularity in the 90s. How many customers did you have during that period?
Murat:That was always the question, especially before we sold mushrooms in individually packaged units. It is extremely important to accurately gauge the market demand. Other growers would overproduce mushrooms, forcing them to dry the excess material and… do illegal things with it. Before the ban, mushrooms had to be fresh—that is, wet—in order to be sold legally in Holland. We would deliver bulk quantities of wet mushrooms to the smart shops at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week significant evaporation would have occurred, and as a result, the mushrooms would be much more potent by weight. The customers thought they got a bonus, and the smart shops felt like they were being screwed because of the reduction in weight. So we started to pack the mushrooms in plastic single-serving containers that allowed them to retain their moisture.
Ali: Right after that development, we moved to a bigger place with ten grow(ing) houses and built an additional four, but that was still not enough to meet the demand. Then we found this current location in 2002, which is ideal because it is divided into two separate buildings, so we can keep the different steps of propagation isolated and minimize cross-contamination. We finally had everything we needed to supply the international market, but then mushrooms were banned in 2008.
I'm vaguely familiar with the events that led to the ban, but there were few accounts in the English media. What happened exactly?
Ali:What happened was not that shocking; what was shocking was the media's reaction. A Frenchman living in a van on the street mutilated his dog and was caught. He immediately blamed his actions on a dose of mushrooms he had supposedly taken, but he was then diagnosed psychotic. The dog mutilation had nothing to do with mushrooms. In the same way an American could say, "I did it because I was drunk," and hope for sympathy, the Dutch can say, "I did it because I was on mushrooms." The drug becomes a scapegoat for normal, or abnormal, human behavior. Then there's the French girl who jumped off a bridge in the spring of 2007. That's what really catalyzed the ban.
Murat: It was never even proved that the girl was on mushrooms! Apparently the receptionist at her hotel saw her, or one of her friends, with a box of mushrooms and jumped to the conclusion that not only was the girl on mushrooms but they were responsible for her death. The girl was French, and in the Netherlands they cannot perform an autopsy on a foreign body. But when she was returned to France no traces of psilocybin were found in her blood. Before the ban, mushrooms were your most popular item, much more so than sclerotia, correct?
Murat: Yes, the truffles were just for the connoisseur. It was a side product at that time, accounting for less than 20 percent of our business. We have been growing them steadily for 15 years, but we grew them mostly because of their novelty. Then the ban came. What the government did was add a list of 186 more or less active mushrooms to the Opium Act. When we took a closer look at that list, we noticed that sclerotia weren't mentioned. If they are not mentioned they are not illegal, so we continued growing our truffles.
Why do you think they neglected to list sclerotia? Was it intentional, or was it an oversight?
Murat: They were aware of sclerotia, because it was discussed at length in Parliament, and they started asking the Ministry of Health questions about truffles. The Ministry came to the conclusion that truffles are weaker so they are less dangerous, and that's why they were not listed. But to my knowledge, the truffles are more potent than many mushroom species. Of course, we were not going to be the ones to argue that before Parliament. Is that because they contain less water by weight?
Murat: Yes and no. The moisture content of mushrooms is about 92 to 94 percent, and in the truffles the moisture content is only 74 to 75 percent. So the truffles are a bit stronger by fresh weight, but the mushrooms are stronger by dry weight. When we sold mushrooms, the dosage for one person was around 30 grams fresh mushrooms, and for the truffles it's only 15 grams. What was the first sclerotia-producing mushroom that you cultivated and sold?
Ali: That was the tampanensis, the Psilocybe tampanensis, which of course originated in Tampa, Florida.
Murat: The literature says that it was only once found in Tampa, and that all cultures that are now available on the market are derived from that one specimen, often called the Pollock strain. It was never found again in the wild. So every philosopher's stone we sell is a descendant of that one mushroom. What is the truffle-growing capacity of this plant?
Murat:We don't like to discuss our exact production, but I will say the full capacity, if we work 24 hours a day, in three shifts, for sterilization and inoculation, would be somewhere around 18,000 tons per year.
When mushrooms were banned, how did you dispose of your stock?
Ali: That was the easy part. People were lined up here, crying, "The last mushrooms! The last mushrooms!" So getting rid of them was no problem at all. We had plenty of volunteers to assist us. I remember very well, the first of December we woke up and knew it was time to do some cleaning. I emptied the grow houses in front of TV cameras and interviewers. It was a sad day, the saddest day of my life. Do you think it's only a matter of time before truffles are illegal as well?
Ali:Well, you never know. As long as there are no incidents… It seems an incident is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before someone takes an unnecessarily large dose of truffles and attempts to fly, or there is an equivalent truffle-related dog-mutilation incident.
Ali:Yes, it may be that an incident is inevitable. So everyone must be more responsible than ever before. The users must understand that their isolated actions can result in the destruction of an entire industry. The smart shops must sell their products with caution, knowing that unstable people are sometimes drawn to altered states. And the media must realize that a small story can catalyze drastic changes in the law. In 2008 all the mushrooms had to be destroyed, but the sclerotia remained. That is actually what they are meant for, to preserve the fungus in a hostile environment. Right now the environment is politically hostile, yet the sclerotia survive.