22 November 2011

Tarzan was wild. Wedge-tailed eagles are wild. Buddy Holly was wild, for his time.

But mushrooms? Well, sometimes.

Australia does have around 2000 described indigenous wild mushrooms, and some are edible, including the ‘slippery jack’ and ‘pine’ mushrooms. The vast majority of wild mushrooms, however, are the stuff of Agatha Christie novels – perfectly lethal in that ‘murder in the parlour’ kind of way.

To put them in their historical context, mushrooms are a relatively new ingredient in Australia. Until the 1960’s, mushrooms came in a can, usually from France. In fact the first commercially farmed fresh Agaricus (button) mushrooms were harvested in 1933 in the railway tunnels at Circular Quay, under the auspices of the former Spanish ambassador.

But the mushrooms we most commonly refer to as being ‘wild’ are anything but. These days there’s an abundance of supposedly wild choices: shiitake, wood ear, shimeji, oyster, enoki and chestnut mushrooms are available in almost every supermarket. But little has changed since the 1930’s.

Railway tunnels are still the prime growing facility for mushrooms. Damp, dark and with a predictable temperature, they provide the mycologist (mushroom scientist) with an ideal environment. You see, for commercial production, the variables must be tightly controlled. This is in no way wild, in fact it’s more regimented that most other agriculture.

The majority of wild mushrooms available to us are grown in disused rail tunnels in the Southern Highlands, in a facility established in the 1980’s. But supply is only half the equation. In Australia it has been a demand-led economy.

The rapid growth of Asian cuisine in the past quarter-century has been the principal driving element of the exotic mushrooms industry. Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai food rely on a range of traditionally-foraged mushrooms, but as these were not native to Australia, an industrial solution was the only answer.

Does the fact that these fungi are grown in such a controlled way make them less wild? Well, yes. But they are still equally delicious. So it’s little wonder that I’m wild about mushrooms.
Barbecued chicken breast with wild mushroom and leek saute

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