Fabulous fungi

By Liz McLEOD | Perched atop the banks of the Huon River in the idyllic southern Tasmanian hamlet of Glen Huon you will find the home of Taskinoko Pty Ltd. The name is a derivative of the Japanese word for mushroom, okinoko, or Huon Valley Mushrooms, as the locals know them.

However the precious fungi grown here do not suffer the vagaries of the weather as did the first serious attempts at commercial cultivation undertaken in New South Wales during the 1930s. No straw-covered, raised open-field beds here, but a multi-million dollar climate-controlled growing facility and laboratory.

Its realisation took a decade. Back in the late 1980s, restaurateur Michael Brown was aghast to realise that exotic dried imported mushrooms were fetching $100 a kilo and that Australia lacked the technology to grow them. His entrepreneurial interest was aroused and, with an earlier-acquired agricultural science degree in hand, he took part in a Tasmanian Enterprise Workshop program.

From this program, Huon Valley Mushrooms emerged and the first harvest of white mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus, was in 1991.

The company’s early focus was on white mushrooms and other fast-fruiting varieties with high market demand, like the Swiss Brown or Tasmanian honey brown, the brown Agaricus, and the Oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. The cash flow generated underpinned R&D funding into the more lucrative and temperamental exotics.

These cluster-growing fan-shaped mushrooms are available in an amazing range of colours and boast a wonderful silky mouthfeel

The brown and white Agaricus shared equal billing with consumers until a mutant white strain took centre stage in the 1920s and the brown variety temporarily fell from grace. However, with a more robust flavour than its white-capped cousin, reminiscent of the paddock-plucked mushrooms of my youth, the brown Agaricus is once again much sought after, as the one tonne a week produced by Huon Valley Mushrooms testifies.

Pleurotus ostreatus, the oyster mushroom, was another early specialty. These cluster-growing fan-shaped mushrooms are available in an amazing range of colours and boast a wonderful silky mouthfeel.

The real challenge began when HVM embarked on intensive research into the commercial production of shiitake, also known as Japanese tree or forest mushroom. While HVM found that the fungi being produced to that had been somewhat nonchalant as to their growing medium, the shiitake were not. Some 2000 years ago, long before mushrooms were cultivated in Europe, the Japanese were harvesting these large fleshy brown parasol-shaped caps from water-softened dead oak wood. As this particular variety of wood was unavailable in Australia, HVM needed to find an alternative wood or to develop an artificial ‘log’.

The production of shiitake is very much a hands-on affair.

It took three years of persistence before a eucalypt sawdust log proved itself to be both inexpensive and readily available and with similar yields to the first trialled but disproportionately expensive myrtle, the closest local variety to the Japanese hardwood. In 1999 the company received Commonwealth Government research and development loan assistance to commercialise its artificial log production system for shiitake production. HVM now produces 600-800kg of shiitake a week with potential to increase this fivefold.

The production of shiitake is very much a hands-on affair. Once the 2.5kg of sawdust and nutrients are packed into individual polypropylene growing bags under sterile conditions, the bags are sterilised to destroy any organisms which could compete with the fungi before being inoculated with the spawn. Sealed, the bags then rest undisturbed on shelves in the ‘spawn-running rooms’ for about four months whilst the spawn weave their magic.

The logs are then stripped of their bags and packed again onto shelves, but this time cloaked by cold and humidity. After about two weeks the first mushrooms emerge when the temperature is increased. Some four weeks after the first mushrooms appear and the initial harvest, the logs receive a cold water bath for rehydration and to encourage a further ‘flush’ of fungi. Each log produces up to 1kg over four or five flushes.

A more recent odyssey has been to establish techniques for the commercial production of Matsutake mushrooms. These mushrooms are similar to truffles in that they exist in a host-fungus relationship within the root systems of particular tree varieties. [continued here]

Fabulous fungi: Part II

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