Mushrooms and humans have had a mutually beneficial relationship for thousands of years, in fact, a frozen mummy found in 1991 in the Italian Alps was later found to be carrying two different species of fungi in his knapsack. The ‘iceman’ was dated at over 5,000 years old and the fungi became known as the ‘iceman fungus’.
One of these species was used as a medicine and the other was tinder for fire starting. Over time, humans have also used fungi as a cultural and ritual tool as well as a bright coloured dye for clothes and art. However, our main interest has been as a food source and more recently for the health-stimulating properties associated with some species.
Mushrooms are the nutritious and tasty fruit body of a much larger organism; its sole purpose to spread spores far and wide to capture new food sources. In nature, the fruit only appear briefly once or twice a year and then disappear overnight. With the advance of cultivation techniques, many of the edible fungi are now available throughout the year in either fresh or dried form. Whilst sometimes difficult to find, over 30 species are now cultivated worldwide for their edible and medicinal qualities.
Several of the most popular are now being grown in Australia, with just a handful of producers supplying the growing demand. Traditional methods involved the cultivation on hardwood logs stacked in forests and exposed to the elements. These logs would take two years to fruit and would produce seasonally for several years. Nowadays straw or sawdust is used to create artificial logs that can fruit in as little as three weeks depending upon the species. These can be cycled more rapidly through the climate-controlled grow rooms, thus removing the seasonal nature and allowing cropping year-round.
KING OYSTER ( Pleurotus eryngii)
These fungi are a favourite amongst chefs and consumers alike. They are delicious sliced across the stem into thin discs then sautéed until the edge becomes golden brown, or added onto vegetable kebabs and barbequed. In Asia the grow rooms are manipulated to produce short stocky mushrooms with small caps, but when grown at home they can produce some very large fruit bodies that are trumpet-shaped and sometimes called the ‘French horn’. They have a wonderfully meaty texture and unique taste deserving of the title ‘king oyster’.
OYSTER ( Pleurotus sp.)
These mushrooms are a bracket fungi and produce clumps of fan-shaped fleshy fruit that have long gills underneath. They are found throughout the forested regions of the world and come in many colours including grey, white, blue, pink and yellow. They are also one of the easier to grow of the gourmet fungi and are so versatile in the kitchen. Rapid cooking gives a soft delicate texture, whilst slow cooking results in a meatier mushroom. They are great in stir-fries, omelettes, risottos or as a side dish cooked with butter and garlic. These mushrooms have cholesterol-lowering properties and are used medicinally to improve digestive system functioning.
LION’S MANE ( Hericium sp)
Lion’s mane are beautiful looking mushrooms with elongated spines and have long been considered both a medicinal and edible mushroom. With a long history in Asian cultures, modern research has discovered their potential as an immune booster and for nerve regeneration properties. They have even been made into pill form. These mushrooms are a choice edible with an interesting texture and taste reminiscent of seafood. Longer cooking is required to remove the excess moisture and to achieve the desired crispy texture.
SHIITAKE (Lentinus edodes)
Pronounced shee–ta-kay, these mushrooms have been grown for over 1,000 yrs in Asia and to this day are one of the most popular of all the exotic fungi. Shiitake’s use and cultivation is growing rapidly due partly to their unique taste and texture, but also to their many health-stimulating properties, including use as an immune booster, blood pressure regulator and for lowering cholesterol.
With a robust earthy taste and meaty texture, shiitake mushrooms are fantastic added to Asian-style soups and noodle dishes or stir-fried with fresh greens and served on a bed of steamed rice. They are available in a dried form then rehydrated by soaking overnight in water. This water can then be used as a stock for a broth called shiitake dashi.
REISHI / LING CHI ( Ganoderma lucidium)
A woody bracket fungi with a texture that is too tough to eat, these mushrooms are revered instead for a health-stimulating tea. Finely chopped or torn then steeped in boiling water for at least 20 minutes, reishi makes a pleasant immune-boosting brew that has a distinctive odour. They can also be used to add flavour to risottos and slow cooked dishes.
There are many more fungi becoming available, including wood ear pioppino, enoki, porcini and shimeji. Many of these are imported either fresh or dried, but local producers are slowly increasing the fresh supply.
It is easy to grow your own fungi at home with a grow kit. For something a little different, Western Australian company Swan Valley Gourmet Fungi supplies grow-your-own fungi logs. These logs need to be kept indoors in a room that has some natural light and lightly misted with water a couple of times per day. Grown on locally sourced raw materials, the logs will produce two or three crops of fresh, healthy fungi. It’s a great way to produce your own food at home without getting your hands dirty!
SWAN VALLEY GOURMET FUNGI
David and Brigett Proudmore have been producing specialty mushrooms for over 15 years. Originally started in a business incubator centre at the Fremantle prison and then in the Swan Valley, they are now based in Gidgegannup in the Perth hills. Currently growing up to seven species, depending upon the season, they supply fresh mushrooms and grow kits at several local farmers markets. Construction is now underway for three more grow rooms, with the aim to become one of the major specialty mushroom producers in WA.