Justin North
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

The tunnel

In 1866, a railway tunnel was laboriously cut through a mountain separating the rural New South Wales towns of Mittagong and Bowral. In 1904, when Canberra was declared capital city of the newly federated Australia, a bigger railway line and tunnel were constructed near the site, to connect the nation’s largest city (Sydney) and its new capital city. The original tunnel became obselete.

These days, the dimly lit 1866 tunnel houses more than a dozen varieties of exotic mushrooms, which are grown here year-round. Cooma-born doctor of microbiology, Noel Arrold, settled in Mittagong in 1979 and began the painstaking work of isolating mushroom strains and growing them in sterilised conditions both in the railway tunnel and his nearby laboratory.

Conditions in the tunnel are consistent, with temperatures hovering between 16 and 18°C all year round and a humidity level between 80 and 90 per cent. At certain points the 650-metre long tunnel is further than 50 metres under the ground. The tunnel is a warm cocoon: perfect for farming the mushrooms that prefer these conditions. In fact the climate is strikingly similar to those of mountainous regions of China, Korea and Japan where some of these mushroom strains grow wild.

Arrold has travelled far and wide researching exotic mushroom strains for the market in Australia. A recent trip involved travel to villages 60 kilometres from Lijiiang, near Tibet, to study the potential for importing exotic mushroom strains, which fetch up to A$3000 a kilogram on the Japanese market. In terrain similar to that of the Rocky Mountains, Arrold explains, entire families venture into the mountains to pick mushrooms.

Importing mushroom spores into Australia can only be done through approved laboratories and Arrold deals with laboratories and universities in France, Hong Kong and the United States. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) is currently reviewing the mushroom species approved for import into Australia and Arrold is hopeful they’ll approve a further three or four species.

Cultivating cultures

Mushrooms are extremely fast-growing and Arrold’s company, Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms, produces 1500 kilograms of them every week.

Exotic mushrooms grow naturally on decaying trees in forests. In a controlled environment they are cultivated on sawdust or other plant materials such as straw or cottonseed. At Li-Sun the sawdust is mixed with wheat, rice bran, lime and gypsum, placed in bags or bottles and sterilised at 120°C for two hours to eliminate any organisms present. When the sawdust has cooled a pure culture of the mushroom is added and the bags or bottles incubated at 22°C. The incubation period is anywhere from three to ten weeks, depending on the species.

After this incubation period the crop is taken to the tunnel and the plastic bags removed to allow for cropping. The combination of watering the crop and the warm, humid conditions in the tunnel promotes growth and within five days mature mushrooms appear. The inoculated sawdust will continue to fruit for several weeks before the mushroom culture is exhausted.

Oyster and shimeji mushrooms are grown on pasteurised cottonseed hulls and wheat straw that has been steamed at 70°C. This mix goes into bags with holes punched in them through which the mushrooms will grow.

Staff move through the tunnel daily, picking mushrooms, watering the bags and soaking the sawdust blocks in water. Once the mushrooms are harvested they are returned to the laboratory where they are packaged and sent directly to produce markets around Australia.

Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)

Also known as the ‘black forest mushroom’, the shiitake has a pronounced meaty flavour. Its name is derived from the Japanese shii (oak) tree and records trace cultivation as far back as 1000 years. Used both fresh and dried, its active ingredient, lentinan, is a registered cancer treatment in Japan. It has also been proven to lower cholesterol. Cracked skin on the top of the mushroom indicates a fuller flavour.

Oyster (Pleurotus spp.)

Its fluted, shell-like appearance coupled with a meaty flavour have made the oyster mushroom a favourite around the world. It is a great natural composter and has been credited with eliminating heavy metals from soils where it grows, especially in Eastern Europe. In Asia, oyster mushrooms are favoured for their medicinal properties believed to lower cholesterol and boost the immune system.

Pink oyster (Pleurotus djamor)

This light, delicately gilled mushroom is a strain from South America. It prefers a temperature of 28°C, although when grown at this temperature its shelf life is dramatically shortened. This mushroom is bitter when raw and best when lightly cooked, as prolonged cooking leaches its brilliant colour.

Yellow oyster (Pleurotus cornucopiae)

Yellow oysters grow in greater numbers than the pink oysters, but at a smaller size. The flavour is delicate and responds best to only light cooking; anything more and both flavour and colour are diminished. The sweet, slight straw and delicate nutty flavour when raw makes this a popular mushroom.

Chestnut (Agrocybe aegerita)

Also known as the ‘black poplar mushroom’, the chestnut mushroom grows in clusters on dead tree species in Europe. The flavour is mellow when young and the texture crunchy. The chestnut mushroom was one of the first mushrooms to be cultivated by man.

Nameko (Pholiota nameko)

Native to cool, mountainous regions in China and Japan, the nameko is one of Japan’s most popular mushrooms. Its bright orange cap (which has a sticky fluid coating) contrasts a long white stem. The gelatinous coating dissolves during cooking, releasing a delicate, nutty flavour and aroma.

Enoki (Flammulina velvtipes)

Also known as the ‘golden needle mushroom’, the enoki is grown in clusters and is easily distinguishable by its unique slim shape, long stems and pin-head cap. Trimming off the base is all the preparation required for enoki mushrooms; heating can too easily destroy the texture and taste. The Japanese developed a method of growing enoki mushrooms in chilled rooms where carbon dioxide levels are elevated and light exposure limited, and these conditions are replicated by Arrold at Li-Sun.

Shimeji (Lyophyllum spp.)

Highly versatile, the shimeji mushroom has an intense, sweet and nutty flavour coupled with a succulent texture. The firm-fleshed mushroom grows wild in Japan, flourishing on dead native Japanese trees. In Australia this species is different from the hon-shimeji or true shimeji as grown in Japan. It usually has a blue/grey cap and white stem, though colours range from woody brown to white.

Recipes in this Chapter

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