By Ethan Weinstein
We’re working on a podcast, My Side of the Mountain, featuring overlooked stories of everyday life. For the first episode, I went foraging with Ian Vair. Listen here:
“I didn’t just do this because I said, ‘Oh cool, medicinal mushrooms.’ They healed me in some ways. And it was really life changing for me.”
You might recognize Ian Vair from the Rutland Farmers Market or a number of other markets around the state. He sells chaga tinctures and medicinal teas, gourmet mushroom creations, and foraged edible mushrooms. I went walking with him through Pine Hill Park to talk foraging, natural remedies, and the hardships that led him to life of fungi.
Almost 20 years ago, Vair’s stepfather gave him his first mushroom field guide — a battered, red-leather book he still brings into the woods. For seven years, he would not eat his finds. Despite being a classically trained chef, Vair had an aversion to mushrooms. Still, he learned to identify a few dozen species, carrying the book with him on hiking trails.
Then, 13 years ago, Vair moved from Maryland back to his native Vermont. “I started finding 10 times more mushrooms than I found in Maryland. Ten times. It was unbelievable,” he said. One day in Pine Hill Park, Vair bumped into a guy who called himself a “shroomer.”
The man would offer him occasional advice when they crossed paths, pointing out patches of mushrooms or helping distinguish between look-alike species. The shroomer guided Vair to some chanterelles — a hallowed mushroom among fungi fanatics — and instructed him to bring them home to eat.
“In that first experience, I went from ‘I hate mushrooms’ to ‘these are amazing.’” But it would take tragedy to turn Vair from chef to mushroom man.
At age 9, Vair developed epilepsy. That same year, he had a “massive brain surgery” — he has the scar across his head to prove it — which stopped his seizures for twenty years. But when Vair moved back to Vermont, the seizures began to return. They were few and far between at first, and he chose to ignore them. “Five years I fought it,” he said. “I kept driving because I wasn’t having them very often.”
“The last time I drove a car, I totaled it, went through the windshield.” He couldn’t ignore his epilepsy any longer.
Taking stock of his life, Vair opened the fridge. Three of the four shelves were filled with wild mushrooms he’d foraged. “I got the idea to go to a farmer’s market. I thought maybe a farmer would be interested in my mushrooms.”
He showed up to the Rutland Farmers’ Market, spoke with the market manager, and set up a booth. Within an hour and a half, he’d sold out. “I made more money than I’d made in that period of time in my whole life.” Ten years later, he still sells mushroom at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, but he’s also added tinctures and prepared foods.
Throughout the morning, Vair and I got on our hands and knees to study mushrooms. Pulling out his field guide, he walked me step-by-step through the identification process. We found amanitas, waxy caps, and even oyster mushrooms — a choice edible. When we encountered bolete mushrooms — classic-looking, gill-less fungi — Vair would nibble on a piece and spit it out. There are no particularly dangerous boletes, so a taste test is a quick way to figure out a bolete’s edibility. Still, Vair doesn’t recommend the method, except when accompanied by an expert. And all mushrooms should be cooked before consumption.
Over time, Vair has shifted his business from a focus on foraged edibles to medicinal mushrooms. Chaga in particular — a parasitic, birch dwelling fungus — has a special place in his heart. “I’m a former bodybuilder and track athlete,” Vair said. “The residual of that is some orthopedic issues. I’ve had 10 orthopedic surgeries, and there was a time when I had issues sleeping through the night.”
When Vair first started his mushroom business, he had never tried chaga. A friend suggested it might help with his health issues. Within a month of taking chaga, he was sleeping through the nights. Vair claims the fungus has reduced his weightlifting-related pain by 90%, cleared his skin, and boosted his immune system. “It’s really close to my heart.”
Now, Vair transforms chaga into a highly concentrated tincture. He says it has helped people with IBS get off their pharmaceutical meds, eased arthritis, and reduced chemotherapy side-effects for cancer patients. With benefits like these, Vair has developed long term relationships with his clients. They see him as a miracle worker. “The end result of the medicinal mushrooms is tenfold, one hundredfold superior to the choice edibles.”
Still, Vair continues making bisques and mac-n-cheeses with his foraged finds. He sells them in the winter when mushrooms are scarce, and says they are a good way to attract customers to his table at busy farmers’ markets. He is, after all, a chef, and cooking is a creative outlet. He has a show on PEG-TV, “Green Mountain Chef,” in which he cooks with foraged fungi and local produce. This year, he hopes to make more videos, both cooking and foraging, and expand his YouTube channel.
Through fungi, Vair has navigated from the darkest time in his life to the most fulfilling. He has made a living of walking in the woods. “If I’m out here in the woods, I am just all over. I’m not just on the trail, I’m criss-crossing. I’m seeing downed trees over there, big oak trees over here. I just totally forget about reality. Totally.” Foraging produces a flow state, dissolving the boundary between man and forest.
“I see [mushrooms] as an extension of me. It’s weird. I have an odd relationship with them, because I find a lot of them. It’s almost like they speak to me. I know that sounds crazy. But I just have this experience when I’m in the woods, and I’m with my buddies, my kiddos, and all my stressors in life just disappear.”