When José Sanchez isn't working as a chef, you'll likely find him in his Warners Bay basement getting funky with fungi. The 30-year-old, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, moved from Brisbane to Newcastle in October.
His interest in mushrooms started two years ago when he attended a mushroom-growing class in Newcastle with a friend. Then he began trying his first mushroom experiments in Brisbane.
"They were all a success. It seems I know how to read instructions," he jokes.
From there, like many mushroom enthusiasts, he became more fascinated with different mushroom varieties; how they grow and the emerging research behind them and fungi as a whole. (All mushrooms come from fungi, but not all fungi grow mushrooms.)
During the pandemic, everyone got a hobby, and mushrooms were his.
For many mycophiles (mushroom devotees), the love is not just about the mushrooms you fry up for breakfast, it's also about medicinal, traditional Chinese mushrooms, hallucinogenic mushrooms and the growing body of research around mycology, an emerging science. American mycologist Paul Stamets' name pops up regularly in mushroom circles. His Ted Talk from 2008 has more than 6 million views. In the talk he lists ways mycelium fungus can help save the universe.
Sanchez is particularly interested in the medicinal use of Lion's Mane mushrooms.
Lion's Mane is an edible mushroom traditionally used in Chinese medicine. Health blogs and websites increasingly recommend it, and often advertise it as a "nootropic", which means a brain-boosting drug.
There isn't a huge body of research to back the many mighty mushroom claims, but fungus fans are keen to change that.
"I really believe in this era, with all these technologies, there's a big problem with mental health," Sanchez says. "Coming from Venezuela there's not these problems. You can imagine when I arrived in Australia it is surprising to me that people who seem to have a perfect life with good incomes have mental problems."
His home city of Caracas is the most violent city in the world and yet he sees there's more depression and mental health problems here, in one of the richest countries on Earth. Sanchez says he believes medicinal mushrooms could be one element to improve mental health, and while he's very enthusiastic about it, for now he's sticking with growing oyster mushrooms.
He's gone through three mushroom harvests and is currently in the process of securing a proper tent for his basement to grow them in larger quantities, aiming to harvest 30 kilograms a week.
Martine Poulain, general manager of Australian Mushroom Growers' Association, says Australia has one of the highest consumption per capita of mushrooms among developed economies. It is also one of the fastest growing mushroom industries in the world, with production growing by 20 per cent in 10 years.
"We see this increasing in 2021 with the health benefits of mushrooms appealing to a population intent on keeping healthy during a pandemic," Poulain says.
More established in mushroom production is Kim Margin of Margin's Mushrooms. Margin lives in Woy Woy and sells on Sundays at the Newcastle Farmers Market. He's been running his family mushroom business for 13 years and selling in Newcastle for the past five. He, his wife, his son and their 20 employees grow Whites, Swiss Browns and Oyster mushrooms. They aren't certified organic, but they don't use chemicals.
Margin knows a lot about mushrooms, from personal experience and also from his own interest and research.
He says 100 years ago mushrooms were grown in the Hawkesbury Valley.
"Years ago towards Windsor, that corridor away from the residential areas, in rural areas, they'd grow them out there. They'd use bales of straw and use the grain spawn [the spore of the mushroom], two or three million spore. The spore was made by someone usually separate to the grower," he says.
Grain spawn is the seed from wheat or rice, and the spore would sit on that. Back then, mushroom growers would seed bales of hay and put it with the grain spawn and cover it with hessian. They had about five months of production a year before it became too hot or too cold. Later, people would grow them in sheds and then tunnels which were better for keeping a steady temperature. Unfortunately, though, it ultimately resulted in mushroom diseases, which while not necessarily harmful to humans, don't look appealing.
"Back in those days, all mushrooms were canned," Margin says. "They would grow the mushrooms and pack them in wooden boxes. They would all go off to canneries because they didn't have the refrigeration that we have these days. There would be hardly any mushrooms sold fresh."
Refrigeration changed everything. Growers started using a new style of cool rooms with steel panels and foam.
Since Margin has been in business, he's noticed more changes. Woy Woy, Ettalong and Umina used to have multiple fruit shops where people would get their fresh mushrooms. Now there might be one fruit shop left in all three towns.
"The way things are going lots more people are buying through the supermarkets," he says.
The farmers markets have been a great thing for small manufacturers like Margin's. They get regular customers and people interested in food who want to talk to them about mushrooms.
"Mushrooms are very trendy. Keeping plants was like an old-person thing but now there's this underground scene, pun intended, that's fully fruited into this incredible culture," says Monty Sharma of Urban Botanica Collective in Newcastle.
Like Sanchez, he experienced the mushroom awakening. He grew up in Newcastle and studied Industrial Design at the University of Newcastle. He spent four years in corporate engineering, learning about water, land and urban planning. He remembers how his employer used plants to reduce chemical absorption and erosion. He started taking hikes, finding himself inspired by nature and learning more about the foundations of permaculture.
He started Urban Botanica Collective in late 2018 which was initially about designing terrariums, aquariums and growing aquatic plants. He started giving workshops and sharing. He found teaching lit him up. And then he began noticing mushrooms.
"As you walk in nature you see these fruiting bodies around, they're funky, weird shapes. They secrete bubbles of juices. I was interested in them, and in early 2020 I did a seven-day certification with the Ecology Academy and that was literally everything to do with mushrooms: medicinal mushrooms, tinctures, powders, growing them on waste, traditional oyster mushrooms, wild harvesting, taking them home and drying them," he says.
Urban Botanica Collective is still a side hustle. Along with terrariums he sells mycology grow kits for oyster mushrooms.
"They come with some care instructions, you cut two lines in an X and as soon as you cut that bag there's an oxygen exchange. As soon as they taste that exchange the fruiting of the bodies begins which is a two-to-three day process," Sharma says.
"They fruit mushrooms out of that hole. Big mushroom arms come out!"
Sharma also teamed up with a medicinal mushroom company in Melbourne called Teelixer which source their mushrooms from Chinese mountains. They are dry medicinal powders which you add less than a teaspoon of into your teas and broths.
"All mushrooms have compounds, like all plants, but I guess medicinally there's a difference between mushrooms and medicinal mushrooms. With Swiss browns and portabellas, you're getting access to minerals vitamins and proteins, same things you get access to when you eat vegetables," Sharma says. "Medicinal mushrooms, similar to medicinal plants, have amazing compounds called polysaccharides beta glucans. Polysaccharides are the medicinal compound. There are so many different beneficial ways they interact and support the health of the human body."
Sharma notes the well-known species Reishi, used in ancient Chinese for more than 2000 years.
Teelixer's website states: "Reishi mushrooms are a powerful adaptogen that enhances the body's ability to better handle all the kinds of stress life throws at us. This longevity superfood has been used for centuries to reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation and better sleep. Reishi mushroom supplements have a long history of use in ancient China by Taoist monks and sages for cultivating spiritual energy, calming the mind and transforming negative energy in the body."
Sharma recommends at least 28 consecutive days of consuming medicinal mushroom powder to notice a change.
He sources Turkey Tail, Chaga, Cordyceps, Reishi and Lion's Mane, and will be expanding.
Medicinal mushrooms can also be taken in tincture form (extractive alcohol-based consumable), which Sharma regularly does with the help of a Byron Bay-based mushroom company called Lifecykel.
Sharma knows that the study of mushrooms is pretty new. He's keen to encourage mushroom culture but he wants it to be a healthy, sustainable, well-educated mushroom culture, which he talks about on his podcast, Born from Nature.
On the podcast he brings in conversations around permaculture, architecture, local business and more.
Hunter Valley Mushrooms
Ian Nicholas is fairly business minded when it comes to mushrooms. For 20 years he ran a fruit and vegetable business in Port Stephens and now he sells mushrooms for Hunter Valley Mushrooms and also sells mushrooms and vegetables he grows himself on a smaller scale.
Like Margin, he sells them at the Farmers Market, and he also offers grow kits.
A local company owned and run by several Koreans called Nabia bought Hunter Valley Mushrooms five years ago. They grow mushrooms on Richardson Road in Medowie and Nicholas helps sell them.
The location was once an old chicken shed, and for the past 20 years it's been the Headquarters of Hunter Valley Mushrooms. An Irish woman owned it for years, then there was another owner. Five years ago Nabia bought it. They now they have 20 cool rooms and eight staff members most of the time.
(The main grower is Sekwon Kim. Prior to living in Newcastle he was a professor in Korea specialising in mushrooms.)
"We're growing about 10 pallets of mushrooms a week, over two tonnes of mushrooms," Nicholas says. "We call them exotic mushroom, that's their class. You normally get white buttons and Swiss browns. Ten per cent are exotics. We specialise now in the exotics: king oyster, white oyster, grey oysters, Shimeji."
In the past they've also grown Shiitake mushrooms which are known for their health benefits.
Nicholas remembers three years ago when Nabia decided to grow exotics. At first, they were slow to find their market; people weren't used to eating and cooking with them. These days he sells heaps. He's at Newcastle City Farmers Market every Sunday and the second and fourth Saturday at Speers Point.
They send pallets down to Sydney as well. They supply mushrooms to restaurants Little Nel in Nelson Bay, Momo in Newcastle and Bannisters in Port Stephens.
For Hunter Valley Mushrooms, the mushroom growing process takes eight to 10 weeks.
"They're 90 per cent water so the cool rooms are set up at the right temperature, we have humidity control," Nicholas says. "You've got to keep them separate so the spores from each one don't mix with the other spores. You've got to be careful with cross contamination."
They pick every day, going from room to room on a cycle.
Nicholas grows them for himself as well.
"I think they are a future superfood," he says. "We're just scratching the surface with what they can do medicinally and in the environment as well."
When Margin first started his mushroom farm he and his family were just experimenting.
"I had an old ice-cream factory on our property here, a really old one. It had all these rooms in it. The walls were a couple of feet thick. We couldn't do anything with it. Someone told us you can grow mushrooms in here," he says.
They began exploring it and met people in the industry who inspired them. Now he grows about a tonne of mushrooms every week and can tell you about specific temperatures, the crops, the different flushes (growing cycles) and how much they compost and how little they waste. They use paper bags and cardboard, and they sell their leftover mushroom compost to other gardeners.
"As far as an ecological footprint, the mushroom industry is pretty good, particularly ours," he says.
Margin, like many mushroom enthusiasts, can tell you a lot about how they grow.
"The organism behind the mushroom is called mycelium. It looks a bit like cotton thread. It seeks out a compound in nature called Lignin. Lignin at its essence is basically carbon chains," Margin says.
He explained that when you see a dead tree in the forest with white stuff running through it, that's mycelium (multicellular fungus). When the conditions are right, the mycelium utilises water to throw up fruiting bodies (mushrooms) and reproduce. After that the mycelium continues excreting enzyme out of its roots and keeps absorbing; it doesn't rely on a seed. Mycelium stays in the ground.
Different to Sanchez, Margin, Sharma and Nicholas but still in the fungal realm is Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles near Bungendore where the climate is cooler.
Robinson is a sound engineer and music producer from Sydney who moved to the country in 2001 with his wife and kids.
"Truffles were just starting out at that time so we decided to have a go at it," he says.
They inoculated oak and hazelnut trees with truffle mycelia and began growing winter black truffles. Every winter they harvest them with the help of their Jack Russell dogs, who sniff them out. (The going retail of truffles are $2.50 a gram or $2500 a kilogram.)
They planted their first 500 trees in 2003 and harvested three or four years later. They went commercial in 2008 and now have 2000 trees on three plots.
They sell truffles on their website all over Australia.
He explains that the truffles are the fruiting body of the mycelia that grows on the trees, but truffles are not mushrooms. The edible fungi's scientific name is Tuber melanosporum, and unlike mushrooms it grows beneath the soil under trees.
Truffles are known for thriving in the Pyrenees region of Europe. They typically grow in a forest environment and their spores are usually spread through animals that eat them and leave their droppings.
"It's a fungi like a mushroom, it grows mycelia like a mushroom, but the actual fruit is actually pungent, strong smelling," he says. "They look like the end of the dog's nose if you macro a dog's nose and look at a truffle, they're quite similar."
Truffles are famous for their aroma, which he finds difficult to describe.
"It's a sweet sort of smell, a little bit like really ripe beetroot with a sort of texture. The smells vary according to your taste. It can be quite funky, comparable to old socks," he says.
Both Margin and Robinson offer tours of their farm. (Turalla Truffles was closed during COVID but they'll be opening up again soon.)
Be it business or pleasure, the exploration of fungi has a reputation for being addictive.
"Every time I read about other people's mushroom journeys, apparently everyone gets to this point where they get obsessed. I did actually feel that way; I got completely obsessed," Sanchez says. "There are probably heaps of problems in the world that mushrooms can actually help."
Sanchez, Margin and Sharma mentioned the benefits of mushrooms for vegetarian and vegan diets.
"There's a lot of people substituting mushrooms into their meat dishes; people cutting down on the meat they eat," Margin says. "Spaghetti bolognaise for four people, rather than using a kilo of mince, you can use 700 grams of mince and blend in 300 grams of mushrooms and cut your meat consumption."
Sharma pointed out that there's only a tiny difference per gram in protein between a breast of chicken and an oyster mushroom serving.
Sanchez is big on plant-based diets but he noted that oyster mushrooms do actually consume living things. (They digest spiders and nematodes.)
The fungus kingdom is vast and unexplored, but scientists, farmers and enthusiasts are spreading the good word and the spores. All over the world and right here in Newcastle, big things are popping up.
IN THE NEWS:
- Petition calls for end to Stockton cat culling
- House parties, St Patrick's Day back on as restrictions ease
- Charges over alleged Lake Macquarie paramedic assault
- Knights extend coach Adam O'Brien's contract
- Airport, Broadmeadow make it onto infrastructure priority list
- Shark nets on the agenda for Lake Macquarie
- Unions on board Newcastle electric bus manufacturing bid