Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Exploring the Southern Highlands Mushroom tunnel with Foodpath Tours

I've heard stories about the mushroom farm in the highlands for years, ever since I moved to Mittagong in 2000.  "Watch out when the wind is blowing the wrong way," people warned. "Oh no, you don't want to live in Mittagong."  Yet I never noticed any bad smells, never saw any evidence for good or bad of this elusive mushroom industry. But so much of the good things in life are hidden away until you find a guide.

This week I joined a Foodpath tour and started to unravel some of the mystery.  Many mushrooms were indeed growing not far from my home but deep under Mt Gibraltar or The Gib as people around here call it.  I have driven over and past the old railway tunnel many times without ever knowing it was there.

On Tuesday morning a group of about 24 milled around the Tourism Centre in Mittagong before setting off for an unknown locale somewhere between Bowral and Mittagong. Our little bus slipped through a padlocked gate and along the edge of the Sydney-Canberra rail line, depositing us outside a tunnel built almost 150 years ago, carved out of the shale when rail travel was noisy and dirty but also terribly romantic.  Becoming redundant in 1919 when a new two line track was built in the open air, the tunnel has lived a few lives and no doubt has a few stories to impart: this is but one. Cool and wet inside and filled with hundreds of mushroom growing bags and jars, the brick tunnel was a surreal sort of place. The large exhaust fans and the hillside itself cut off all sound from outside. If you spent too much time closed inside you could lose all sense of time and place.

Despite, or perhaps in response to, Australia having few edible wild mushrooms Australians have become high consumers of commercially grown mushrooms. So many Australians hale from countries with strong traditions of mushroom eating, especially in south-east Asia and Western Europe, but for those of us from Anglo heritage mushrooms have been something to fear. Although button mushrooms are a staple the demand for more exotic varieties is growing and commercial supply is removing that fear: if they come packaged and labelled we are ok to give them a try. Our host, Noel Arrold, microbiologist behind the li-sun exotic mushroom tunnel we were visiting, noted the growing demand for mushrooms to stock supermarket shelves not just restaurant kitchens.

This old tunnel is the fruiting room for several varieties of oyster mushrooms and the much prized shiitake. Li-sun grow other mushrooms but some like enoki need specific conditions not met by the tunnel. Workers arrive each morning to harvest the mushrooms, then package and dispatch them. Mushrooms do not keep long so I imagine this process must have a sense of urgency about it. Like growing and selling delicate flowers.
Shiitake
On the way into the tunnel we saw piles and piles of black plastic bags discarded but with astonishing pink oyster mushrooms growing out of them like rare coral.  The reality of mushroom growing is that the bags must be discarded as the flushes reduce, to make space for fresher culture and a higher yield. If you are lucky enough to have access to bags of fresh mushroom compost you may be able to pick your own mushrooms for a few weeks. 
Pink oyster mushrooms

We were well looked after by our host Noel, our tour guide Jill Dyson and our bus driver too of course. Noel was generous in the information he shared about the process of growing mushrooms and patiently answered questions.
Noel Arrold held everyone's attention.

We walked the whole length of the 650m tunnel and back admiring the wonder of mushrooms at every stage of growing.
Baby oyster mushrooms

I was excited to discover how much of the process I understood thanks to my training in mushroom cultivation from Milkwood Permaculture. But background knowledge was certainly not needed. For me it was an inspiring tour, helpful in my own adventures in mushroom growing. And Noel was kind enough to share a few pointers and encourage me. I guess for most it was a great foodie moment, me included.  Its wonderful so many people want to know where their food comes from.  We all came away with a recipe booklet and a punnet of mixed exotic mushrooms.

At least a few of my pink oysters are going into a petri dish along with a few pieces from the King Brown so I can grow my own.  The rest we'll eat sauteed in butter and garlic, topped on pizza, in risotto .... Dinner time: what are you eating tonight?

I have already decided what my next foodpath tour will be, but I am reluctant to tell you until I have booked. I don't want to lose out on a seat on the tour now do I. So you'll have to check it out for yourself or stay posted here...

Jill with a massive bunch of pearl oysters. 

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