Fancy a Fungus?
IN ANCIENT Egypt the Pharaohs prized mushrooms as delicacies. They became the preserve of the royal family. The Romans called mushrooms food of the gods and served them only on special occasions. The ancient Greeks held mushroom feasts and believed that mushrooms empowered their warriors for battle.
Today, however, mushrooms are not just for the elite. People all over the world enjoy eating them! What about you? If you fancy mushrooms, do you know what you are eating? Are mushrooms animals, vegetables, or something else? How are they grown? Are they nutritious? And if you see mushrooms in the wild, what should you do?
Searching for answers, my wife and I drove from Sydney, Australia, to Mittagong, a picturesque town in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Our destination? Noel Arrold’s mushroom farm.
Noel, a burly Australian, is a microbiologist and mushroom expert. He studied mushroom cultivation in several countries before returning to Australia to grow them commercially. “Mushrooms are fungi, a family of organisms that includes mildews and molds,” he explains. “Biologists formerly thought that fungi were plants, but we now know that they are very different from plants.
“For example, fungi do not make their food through photosynthesis as do nearly all plants. They can grow in the dark. Their bodies secrete powerful enzymes that convert organic material into basic nutrients, which they absorb as food. This unique digestive process also distinguishes fungi from animals. Since fungi are neither plants nor animals, biologists now classify them in a realm of their own—the fungi kingdom.”
“In the wild, mature mushrooms release millions of tiny spores that mix with other mushroom spores and germinate,” Noel continues. “If the . . . spores land in a cold, damp place with plenty of food, they can grow into new mushrooms. Commercial mushroom growers aim to replicate this process using controlled conditions to improve crop yields and quality.”
As we continue our tour, Noel explains that different mushroom varieties require different growing conditions. For example, white, or button, mushrooms, the world’s most popular variety, grow best on pasteurized farm compost. Other varieties flourish in bags of plant waste, bottles of cereal grains, whole wooden logs, or logs of compressed sawdust. Of the thousands of known mushroom species, only about 60 are commercially cultivated.
Noel allows his mushrooms to mature and fruit in an old abandoned railway tunnel near Mittagong. “It’s cool, damp, and perfect for growing mushrooms,” he tells us. There we see an array of bags, pots, and bottles sprouting thousands of mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. Some remind us of blooming roses; others resemble fluted lilies or look like floral bouquets or squat umbrellas. We are enthralled by the colorful display!
Tasty and Versatile
“Many people love the look of exotic mushrooms but may not know how to prepare them,” Noel explains. “Yet, they are easy to cook. Some people chop them up for stir-fries, soups, and salads, or they cook them whole on a barbecue. Personally, I enjoy oyster mushrooms crumbed and fried in oil. And shiitake mushrooms have a rich, meaty flavor that tastes great in omelets.”
Edible mushrooms are highly nutritious and are a valuable source of fiber, protein, minerals, and vitamins. Some 2,000 varieties are also known to have medicinal properties. According to one medical review, mushroom extracts have more than 100 medicinal uses, including combating cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and high cholesterol.
It can be very dangerous to gather mushrooms in the wild, however. The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), among others, closely resembles edible varieties yet is deadly. So follow the rule: Never eat mushrooms from the wild unless a mushroom expert identifies them as safe to eat! Of course, commercially grown varieties are safe to consume. They are, in fact, delicious treats that were once reserved for royalty!
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MUSHROOMS IN NATURE
Wild mushrooms grow mostly in cool, damp, dark forests, where they convert dead trees, vegetation, and animal droppings into soil-enriching organic matter. Some form symbiotic relationships with trees. Those mushrooms feed on organic compounds in the tree roots, while the trees are supplied with nutrients absorbed by the mushrooms.
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• Store fresh mushrooms in a paper or cloth bag in your refrigerator. Avoid placing them near pungent items, since they can absorb strong odors.
• If you are eating your mushrooms raw, wipe them clean with a damp cloth or quickly rinse them in water and pat them dry with a cloth. Do not soak mushrooms in water.
• If you are cooking mushrooms, simply use a soft brush to remove any surface dirt.
• Do not peel mushrooms—their skins are tasty and nutritious!
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Mushrooms are grown in this temperature-controlled incubation room
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Some mushrooms resemble beautiful flowers
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Grilled mushrooms with hummus, spinach leaves, garlic, and chopped chives
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Courtesy of the Mushroom Information Center
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Top: Courtesy of the Mushroom Information Center; bottom: Courtesy of the Australian Mushroom Growers Association