Upon entering the Li Sun Exotic Mushroom farm in an old railway tunnel between Bowral and Mittagong, there is a sense of entering a strange underground world. It is a similar feeling to that of open water diving where the brightly coloured corals appear somehow taking on a surreal almost alien feeling. In this case the coral are mushrooms and happily for me, given the cool Southern Highland climate, I don’t need to get more than the soles of my shoes wet to enjoy the sights.
As we start the tour, run by the Highlands Foodies Group , I am torn between photographing these fascinating funghi and listening to Dr Noel Arrold’s fascinating mushroom growing techniques and stories.
Whilst mushroom growing techniques are quite interesting, I can’t help my ears tune in to the story of Russian wives collecting poisonous mushrooms to dispose of abusive husbands. Unsuspecting husbands devouring a delicious mushroom dish, would mysteriously two days later, die a painful death as their liver collapsed with their wives nowhere to be seen…….
The tunnel, originally built in 1886 to house a single track railway line, was replaced in 1919 with a double track tunnel to its right, that still remains in use today. During the 1940′s the 650 metre long was used as a store house for ammunition for the Royal Australian Air Force, a purpose that was dismissed after a somewhat ammunition damaging flood. After the RAAF abandoned the tunnel in 1953, the tunnel was used to grow standard mushrooms for the Edgell cannery. Dr Arrold now leases the property from State Rail and as access is limited, the tours can only run a few time a year.
Dr Arrold is somewhat of a mushroom expert. Over lunch later in the day my mushroom eating companion and I debated on an appropriate term for a “mushroom expert” and settled on a Funghifi, however the correct term seems to be a Mycologist. Dr Arrold is a microbiologist by training and having studied fungal genetics in Germany is quite the funghi expert!
After supplying mushroom culture to farmers for some years, he inherited the mushroom tunnel business from a friend who had been growing standard mushrooms in there for the tinned mushroom market. Soon after Dr Arrold, looking to expand his business, began experimenting with the Swiss brown mushroom in the cool stable 16 degree climate of the mushroom tunnel. Dr Arrold has now been growing mushrooms in this old railway tunnel for over 20 years.
Dr Arrold and his team of 12 move through the tunnel each day to pick the daily harvest of about 1500 kilos of mushrooms. Varieties include Wood Ear, Chestnut, Nameko, Swiss Brown, Shitake, King Brown, Shimejii, Chestnut, Wood Ear and Enoki.
Interestingly, railway tunnels all over Australia have been used for mushroom production with the first one being at Circular Quay under the Eastern Suburbs line. Currently though, there are only two in Australia used for mushroom production.
Eventually in the 70′s the price fell out of the tinned mushroom market and the growing conditions did not suit the growing conditions of the modern white mushroom. Dr Arrold has evolved his exotic mushrooms to grow not only in the particular growing conditions of the tunnel but also in Australian eucalyptus sawdust rather than the tradition oak or birch used for growing overseas.
Originally developed for a small Japanese tourist market, Dr Arrold’s mushrooms now head to the big supermarket chains in Australia and are in demand in Sydney restaurants such as Quay, Bennalong, Tetsuyas and Aria.
As the tour draws to a close, Dr Arrold leaves us with a word of warning on wild mushroom foraging. In Australia this year 4 people have died as a result of eating incorrectly identified mushrooms. He tells us a chilling story of a Chinese chef who whilst out here foraged some death cap mushrooms which look remarkably similar to a common chinese eating mushroom and fed it to his friends in a meal. Unfortunately, his friends didn’t make it.
For me, I’m happy to stick with my take home punnet bursting with an assortment of Pink Oyster mushrooms, King Brown and Enoki mushrooms. Just perfect for a non death defying risotto!