Walking through a grove of elms, on a carpet of fallen, decaying leaves, John Ford stoops to inspect a rotting log.
- “Snowflake” is the first commercialised Australian fungi variety
- Grown in optimal conditions, it is far bigger than its wild relations
- In recent years there has been a surge of interest in exotic mushrooms
In a dank crevice he spies what he’s searching for: a delicate white fungus.
It’s an Hericium coralloides, commonly known as the coral tooth fungus.
It resembles a white coral lettuce leaf and grows on dead hardwood trees.
Hericium is found elsewhere in the world, but this Australian version has its own distinction.
It’s the first edible Australian fungus to be commercialised.
A few years ago, Mr Ford, a lifelong forager for edible fungi, found a coral tooth specimen in Victoria’s Otway Ranges National Park.
He got permission to clone and propagate it.
Now, it’s thriving in his climate-controlled growing rooms at Monbulk in the Yarra Ranges, east of Melbourne.
He ran a competition among his fellow fungi fanciers to coin a commercial name for it and came up with ‘Snowflake.’ It has been a big hit with top chefs.
“It has been to all the top restaurants in Melbourne,” Mr Ford said.
Rediscovering ancient knowledge
Mr Ford’s fascination with fungus began in his teens.
A year spent in Germany learning about edible fungi further fostered his desire to explore the possibilities of cultivating Australian fungi.
“I’m really passionate about bringing local, native Australian fungi from the wild into cultivation and onto the plates of Australians,” Mr Ford said.
“I think it’s an amazing untapped resource out there.”
As well as scouring the forest floor, especially in autumn when fungi most-commonly fruits, Mr Ford has exhaustively searched for knowledge of Indigenous use of forest fungi.
He laments he has found little.
“Sadly we’ve lost most of the Indigenous knowledge around fungi and fungi edibility,” he said.
“That particularly goes for southern Australia and eastern Australia, so it’s something that we’re trying to rediscover.”
Propagating exotic mushrooms can be fickle; growers have to try to exactly mimic nature.
Most mushrooms are grown in tightly sealed shipping containers with exact climate control.
From backyard experiments and many failures, a few years ago he gained enough confidence to quit his job as a marine scientist and launch into mushroom growing full time.
He focuses on trumpet-shaped oyster mushrooms, but also produces other exotic varieties, such as lion’s mane.
From the forest floor to high-end restaurants
The growing awareness and consumer demand for exotic fungi has been spearheaded by Melbourne’s gourmet restaurants and popularised by cooking shows.
At Bulla, north-west of Melbourne, Georgia Beattie has big plans to capitalise on the growing demand for exotic mushrooms.
She formerly worked in the technology industry, discovered the dietary benefits of mushrooms through a personal health crisis, and now she is the CEO of a 30-year-old company that produces the popular button, portobello and Swiss brown varieties.
But the company’s plans to double in size focus on growing oyster mushrooms and other exotics.
It has just signed a deal with a Korean company to allow it to grow some exclusive new gourmet types.
“Where it was traditionally an Asian market that was driving sales, we’re seeing a whole range of cultures that are being introduced to it,” Ms Beattie said.
“So we’re really going full swing into this space.”
Beneath the tall eucalypt forest canopy, foraging over the dank forest floor, Mr Ford said for him there was no bigger thrill than finding a new indigenous fungi variety and exploring its potential.
“There’s a few others I’d like to find,” he said.
“We still need to find out whether they’re truly edible, so we might be after some volunteers,” he added, with a mischievous grin.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.