Taming The Wild Mushroom

Appreciating wild and exotic type mushrooms is an age-old gastronomical tradition in Europe, where dozens of varieties have been made available to the consumers; people know precisely what they are looking for. In the land of continental cooking, culinary connoisseurs prize mushrooms based on their rarity and chefs love pairing mushrooms to foods according to their characteristic flavour. In Malaysia, over the past ten years or so, we have seen different types of mushroom being cultivated by commercially by different experts. However, the oyster mushroom, with a long standing-history of being part of the Malaysian cuisine, is a widely grown variety in the country.

 

The oyster mushroom or Pleurotus ostreatus acts as a primary decomposer on wood and is not usually fussy on where it grows, so to cultivate them, growers usually use a medium (not to be confused with compost which contains more added nutrients) which is primarily made of wood. The medium is then steamed using boiling water heated by wood fire and it takes 5 hours to kill off existing fungus spores that may a pose threat to healthy mushrooms.

 

The tropical weather is the greatest advantage to the oyster mushroom grower in the country – 30 years ago, growing mushrooms had always been fascinating, but in Muar, a major agricultural township in the state of Johor, Malaysia, Mr. Chew Swee King started off a small farm growing grey oyster mushrooms, since then this noble mushroom has become a way of life. Today, about 40% of the country's annual crop of nearly 1.8 million kg is produced in the county by one grower, the largest concentration anywhere. Almost every oyster mushroom for sale in Malaysia is from C&C Mushroom Cultivation Farm. The success of the oyster mushroom gave inspiration to other growers and propelled the trend and market of an array of exotic types. But that did not happen until late the ‘90s.

 

And there has been an emergence of fresh European varieties that was once perceived to be exotic and expensive; case in point would be the famous champignon group of fungi, better known as the table mushroom, cultivated mushroom or button mushroom. The button mushroom is an edible mushroom that grows naturally in grasslands, fields and meadows across Europe and North America; now, it has become one of the most famous, affordable, foreign mushrooms made available to Malaysians.

 

We also see supermarkets teeming with fleshy portobello and nutty swiss brown mushrooms; occasionally aromatic chanterelle and odd-looking, spongy monkey head mushrooms are found there too. It seems that even more varieties appear every now and then, like golden enokitake mushrooms and other coloured Asian forest mushrooms; once only obtained in the forests of Korea, Japan and China, they are now cultivated commercially. The mushroom section now looks like a magical playground for gnomes as Malaysian consumers can now choose from dozens of fascinating mushrooms that were once only available in the wild or overseas.

 

In fact, reflecting growing public interest for the enticing tastes and textures of exotic mushrooms, is an increase in mushroom farmers across the country. It took years of research, trial and error and solid hard work for these farmers to learn how to grow and deliver fresh, high quality European and Asian mushrooms to the consumers.

 

However exotic their names may sound, these mushrooms actually come from the same family of fungi, called basidiomycetes. Members of the basidiomycetes family are always recognisable by their umbrella-shaped caps and gills underneath, just like the button, shitake, enokitake and portobello mushrooms. Their differences all boil down to different cultivation methods; after all, growing mushrooms isn’t about throwing spores on decaying matter, adding lots of water and viola! An overnight mushroom fiesta! In reality, mushroom farming is an entire field of agriculture on its own, combining mycologists’ research and environmental technicalities with the need to find the best methods to grow each type specific mushroom.

 

''In the forest, mushrooms have a short growing season, and they are so scarce and exotic that the prices of such mushrooms are unthinkable to the average Malaysian,'' said Robin Yau, Director of Sales and Marketing at Champ Fungi Group. “A lot of people look at that fact and make the assumption that if they could grow those mushrooms in high quantities all year round, they could make a fortune out of it.'' Obviously, he knows that cultivating mushrooms isn’t as easy as it looks.

 

Different mushrooms require different conditions to grow; for the mighty mushroom is a fungus, a mold that has neither roots nor leaves but caps, yields neither flower nor seed but spores, and feeds, like a parasite, on organic matter. The varied species of mushrooms possess different characteristics and flavours depending on the type of soil and the weather in which they grow. So, successfully cultivating a certain type of mushroom will require more than just soil, water or fertiliser, it requires simulated conditions that is similar to its natural home.

 

To grow the hat-wearing basidiomycetes, creating a potent, nutrient-rich soil is vitally important to ensure consistent reproduction; farmers use agricultural by-products like chicken manure and other organic matter to create a compost mixture. For a couple of weeks, a mixer (acting like a remarkably large kitchen blender), will blend together all the necessary ingredients for good soil. With heat generated as a by-product as it is mixed, the compost is an interesting sight resembling smoking earth throughout the mixing process.

 

The compost is then stacked together in beds, with the temperature increased to high degrees in order to pasteurise the cultivation media – this is to eliminate any possible trace of pathogenic microorganisms that may be detrimental to the mushrooms’ health. Once this step is over, the beds are cooled and compacted together and the mushroom culture, specially grown in petri dishes in a laboratory, is introduced. The culture is well spread in the bed and white veins slowly start creeping throughout the compost.

 

Once a couple of weeks have passed, peat moss is then added to the compost; this is used as a soil additive to increase the soil's capacity to hold water. The mushrooms continue to grow upwards through the peat moss. After a week or so, fresh air is introduced to promote sprouting, where mushrooms send up stems and caps from the moss, resulting in a full “bloom” of baby mushrooms clustered together. Harvesting takes place about two weeks later. Every step is meticulously taken care of; and once harvested, the best mushrooms are selected, graded, hygienically sealed and shipped to designated supermarkets under controlled temperatures.

 

Like the Mafia, fungi have more that just one family. Ascomycetes are another group of fungi; though as far as the culinary world is concerned, they are better known as morels and truffles. With no caps or gills to protect their spores, they take a variety of forms: from honeycomb to coral to colourful cup shapes. The Ascomycetes are very hard to cultivate and, like fussy divas, demand perfection in their surroundings – they will settle for nothing less than the exact simulation of their natural habitat. To date, no one has yet managed to cultivate morels in mass. Mycologists have concluded that the more primitive a fungi family is, the harder it will be to cultivate.

 

The morel prefers the forests of temperate countries; it grows best during early spring, on land where forest fires have occurred a year or two earlier. It also grows close to old fruit trees, especially old apple trees. So if someone wishes to tame the wild morel, they would have to create an environment that resembles “a dying old apple tree with its roots deep in previously burnt and after snow forest soil that is moist (but not soggy), complete with a foggy environment with little sunlight.” Whew, sounds like quite a tall order, even for a diva mushroom!

 

Another type of Ascomycetes is none other than the greatly sought after truffle. If you thought the morel was a diva, you’d be stunned at this fungus. The truffle is the most expensive fungus on earth, more expensive than any other exotic food – a rare white truffle can fetch up to €2,000 and €4,000 per kilogram: that is about RM 12,000 – RM 24,000 per kilogram. Why the exorbitant price tag? Like couture fashion, truffles are hard to come by as they are not just handpicked in the wild but found deep underground, detected only by the scent it releases. Curiously enough because the truffle’s scent resembles the male pig sex hormone, female pigs were traditionally used to find these rare treasures. But female pigs, though good at locating truffles, tend to gobble them up after finding them, so truffle-hunters have resolved to train canines to hunt truffles. Although canines have superior smelling abilities, they have no appetite for the fungi, thus allowing the truffles to be collected and sold for human consumption.

 

 

All truffles fall under the Tuber genus, as they are idiosyncratically symbiotic with the roots of the specific tree that they live under. Buried under the soil, the truffles attach to the tree’s roots and absorb nourishment from the tree. The tree in return gets the benefits of increased root surface area, which helps by giving easier access to water and nutrients.

 

Theoretically, it is possible to simulate a breeding ground for these fungi by inoculating roots with truffle spores, turning the trees into breeding grounds. After all, since the once-considered wild mushroom has been understood, domesticated and cultivated, why not the truffle? But alas, there are incredible hurdles that keep the truffle rare. Truffles, like their Ascomycetes cousin the morel, are fastidious, requiring a simulated environment to be perfectly similar to their natural home; they simply must have the right type of soil, the presence of other fungi, optimum temperatures and their preferred climate to grow. Unlike the morel however, it may take more than 20 years before truffles begin to sprout. Talk about a late-bloomer!

 

Still, despite the hardest efforts by both mycologists and farmers, mushrooms and other fungi have hardly given up all their secrets. Although some of them are easily cultivated and readily available as food and others, even now, are being learned and cultivated, a lot still remain elusive. And as they sprout out after thunderstorms and disappear without a trace, their brief life spans leave the gastronomical imaginations of the culinary world wild with colour, taste, texture and delight.

 

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