Let’s step inside the fabulous world of fungi! From mushrooms with the texture of macadamia nuts to others that taste like lobster. Some look like coral and others like lettuce. If one man has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this fascinating food group, it’s John Ford, the founder and chief grower of award winning Unearthed Co. Mushrooms.
John spent many hours as a teenager scouring forest floors for this unique fruit. He’s now turned that hobby into Australia’s largest farm for exotic and gourmet mushrooms at Monbulk in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
“There’s just something about mushrooms that I’m drawn to. How fleeting they are. One minute they’re there and they’re gone the next,” John explains passionately. He loves that they are part of a living forest that’s always changing.
John’s favourite place on his farm is one of his grow rooms which produces the striking orange Nameko mushroom.
“When I walk in the door, fog comes out at you like you’re at the top of a mountain or a forest gully in autumn or winter. It’s cold, it’s wet. Slow drops of water drip onto the floor. Even though it’s not very green, I feel that I’m in a forest.” It highlights the need to mimic many natural environments around the world in order to produce the range of mushrooms John supplies. “It’s an art that we are always learning about. At no point have I felt like I’m an expert or a master,” says John humbly.
“We’re giving them a place to live. That place has to look like where they come from in the wild.”
John says farming mushrooms is unique because they’re not very far removed from what you’d forage in the wild. “We haven’t had thousands of years of domestication to improve genetics and run monocultures,” says John. He is also growing some varieties of Australian native mushrooms, and is among the first in the world to do so.
We’re giving them a place to live. That place has to look like where they come from in the wild.”
“There’s a huge gap in knowledge. Even what mushrooms are out there, certainly whether they have any culinary value or medicinal value. Even our scientific knowledge is lacking. We have many species yet to be discovered.” John explains much knowledge was lost after Colonisation and there hasn’t been as much interest in filling the gaps as there would be in certain European cultures like French and Italian.
“The traditional English culture is rather fungi phobic!”
John’s love of mushrooms started at a young age with home experiments. “I’ve always loved eating mushrooms too,” John laughs.
“Maybe that’s just a given but I was always going to Asian supermarkets and looking at the crazy mushrooms that they sell and I was always interested in buying those and then to learn to grow them myself,” he says. It started out as a hobby while he earned money as a marine scientist and a university lecturer. Eventually, John turned his passion project into a successful business.
The traditional English culture is rather fungi phobic!”
“I’ve always had really strong ties to primary industries. Most of my work as a marine scientist was with fishermen and seafood,” he explains. His role included sustainability, marketing and getting the product out to chefs, which combined well with his interest in food.
Working with so many fishermen across Australia, who had such pride in their product, was something to which John aspired. John explains, his previous work of writing reports and dealing with administrative delays eventually eroded his job satisfaction to the point where he wanted change.
“I’m not built to be a fisherman!” he laughs. John set out to produce something he was proud of and that other people would value. From that moment, Unearthed Co. Mushrooms was born.
My interest has always been in food. It’s always been in primary industries.”
The business has won the ‘From the Earth’ category in the 2021 Delicious Magazine Produce Awards for the highly sought after Abalone mushroom. “That award really means a lot to me,” says John.
“It’s a whole team that puts this together, as is on most farms. The Abalone mushroom – we couldn’t find anywhere else outside its native region in South East Asia. It’s still a struggle. It took a long time but when we have it, it sells like hotcakes. The chefs love it. It’s the one that has the texture of macadamia nut. It’s quite amazing.”
John has introduced at least half a dozen varieties of exotic mushrooms into the Australian marketplace. A lot of the mushrooms go straight to chefs but John hopes market conditions will allow his produce to be stocked at supermarkets in the future.
As well as being a nutritious food source, medicinal mushrooms are also grown at Unearthed Co. Mushrooms. Varieties traditionally used in Chinese medicine have surged in popularity such at Lions Mane, Turkey Tail and Reishi. While they have been utilised in that system for thousands of years, they are harder to source locally, in fact, most are imported in a powder form.
“We’ve got a couple of varieties that we grow,” says John. “There are a lot of hazy rules around them – in what should and shouldn’t be there and in what form. There are a lot of biosecurity issues and so on,” he explains.
“We’re trying to navigate through that to provide an Australian offering. If they want medicinal mushrooms, we want to provide an Australian option because at the moment there really isn’t. It’s just all from China. Who knows where it comes from or where it’s grown? We can certainly guarantee the quality of the product. That they’re pollution free, that everything has been tested, as all foods should be.”
Fruit of the fungi
John also loves the integral role mushrooms play in the broader ecosystem of breaking down woody matter in forests.
“Mushrooms are the fruit of the fungi. The fungi are the body, which you’ll find underground or in a log. Then, what we eat is the fruit. You could be walking around outside and there could be half a dozen varieties of fungi just under your feet!” exclaims John.
So, next time you go for a walk, keep the humble mushroom in mind. Also, a reminder from John that mushrooms are very well suited to urban farming. Something to think about for any budding enthusiasts looking to broaden their mind on mushrooms.
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