Unearthed Co Mushrooms

15th October 2021 | Alison Turner

It’s National Mushroom Day, which offers us the perfect opportunity to celebrate our mushroom growers. One of Australia’s most outstanding mushroom producers is Unearthed Co Mushrooms in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. These guys are on a mission to introduce Aussie foodies to a whole new world of mushrooms. Unearthed Co’s highly-prized abalone mushroom was the ultimate trophy winner in the From the Earth category of the 2021 delicious Produce Awards. But founder John Ford and his team are also passionate about exploring Australian native varieties, as well as finding unique mushrooms from overseas.

Unearthed Co Mushrooms: abalone mushroom
The award-winning abalone mushroom.

The exceptional abalone

Chef and delicious awards judge Josh Niland called Unearthed Co’s abalone mushrooms “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced”. Ford agrees that this Asian delicacy is unlike any other mushroom he’s ever eaten. And this guy has eaten a lot of mushrooms.

“If you eat it raw or very lightly grilled, I’d say the closest thing that it reminds me of is a macadamia nut,” Ford says. “Nothing like a mushroom whatsoever. It has this phenomenal nutty-like creamy crunch and a really full, rounded flavour. A lot of chefs use a mandolin to slice it extremely thinly, and then cook it almost like you would an abalone.

“The amazing thing about this mushroom is that you can cook it in so many ways. I love working with chefs to find out what they’ve done with it. Matt Stone [Future Food System] poaches it in a broth, then thinly slices it. When it’s cooked like this, the texture is more like the soft rubberiness of an abalone. But however you cook it, it retains its crunch.”

Unearthed Co Mushrooms: snowflake mushroom
Wait, that’s a mushroom? The snowflake (centre) is a native Australian variety.

The subtly beautiful snowflake

Unearthed Co Mushrooms was the first Australian producer to grow abalone mushrooms commercially, and was also the first to grow the native Australian snowflake mushroom. While this might not look like your idea of a mushroom, it is. And it’s delicious.

“The snowflake is good to eat both raw and cooked,” Ford says. “And it looks amazing. But the taste is not an overpowering mushroom taste. It’s actually quite sweet. Really more reminiscent of lobster or crab. A lot of mushrooms have big flavours when you eat them raw, whereas this one is much nicer in terms of its subtlety. You can put the snowflake mushroom in anything. It’s great to put in soups, as it holds its form well. I tear it up and put it in risottos or on pizzas. It’s very versatile because it has that sweet, subtle flavour.”

Lionsmane mushroom
Lionsmane might look weird, but it could do wonders for your health.

The lost knowledge of native mushrooms

We have thousands of different species of native mushroom in Australia, and many remain unclassified. Much of our Indigenous Australians’ knowledge of native mushrooms was lost after colonisation, which means Ford sometimes must find other ways to access knowledge.

“For the vast majority, we have no idea about their edibility,” he says. “The reason for this is traditional Indigenous knowledge, particularly here in southern and eastern Australia, was never passed on. We don’t have that Indigenous knowledge of the edibility or medicinal qualities of these mushrooms. So we’re slowly trying to get that back in different ways.

“I get a lot of my knowledge from the Maori culture in New Zealand, because that has been passed on. And there are many similar mushrooms here in Australia that they have in New Zealand. So we’re using that as a guide. But it is quite strange, having to use Maori Indigenous knowledge to uncover what’s happening here in Australia.”

Unearthed Co Mushrooms native wild enoki
Native enoki, which was another first for Unearthed Co Mushrooms.

Enoki, but not as you know it

One of Unearthed Co’s more recent mushroom varieties is the native wild enoki. While it shares the same name as the enoki mushroom that features so often in Japanese cuisine, our native enoki looks and tastes quite different.

“When people think of enoki, they think of those long white mushrooms,” Ford says. “This is basically the same species, but it’s very different in its form. It’s got a thin brown to black stem, and this golden orange cap, about the size of five cent piece.

“And it tastes amazing. A much more potent flavour than the enoki, but with that same sort of crunchy, stringy texture. And again, with the wild enoki, we were the first to sell that commercially in Australia. We try to bring in two, potentially three new varieties each year that have never been grown in Australia before. That’s our aim, every year.”

Unearthed Co also grows native lionsmane, native reishi and native turkeytail mushrooms. Lionsmane has become popular due to its purported health benefits. It’s believed to be protective against dementia and heart disease, and may help reduce symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. Because of this, lionsmane is both a culinary mushroom (tender and delicate, kind of like crab meat), and a medicinal mushroom. It’s used in Unearthed Co’s 100 percent Australian medicinal mushroom powders, along with turkeytail and reishi.

Unearthed Co Mushrooms founder John Ford
Unearthed Co Mushrooms founder and chief grower John Ford checks out a grow room.

Working with nature

The business also grows nameko, speckled chestnut and shiitake mushrooms, as well as black pearl, yellow, shimeji, king and blue oyster mushrooms. But whichever mushroom they grow, the Unearthed team strives to grow it as close to nature as possible.

“Most of the gourmet mushrooms you get in Australia are imported, and they’re usually grown in totally controlled factory environments,” Ford says. “That feels quite removed from my connection with mushrooms and with good food.

“We work with the seasons as much as we can, growing varieties that suit different seasons. This means we always have a fluctuating suite of varieties. And we keep it outdoors as much as we can. We grow in enclosed shipping containers, but everything is outside. We’re not in a room within a factory, closed off from nature. We’d rather encourage nature in.

“We have frogs and spiders and lizards living in our grow rooms. Because we grow organically, we don’t use any chemicals. I think it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re growing chemical-free when you have frogs, lizards and spiders living around the mushrooms. And of course, they’re doing their job in keeping the pests down.”

Blue oyster mushrooms
Almost too pretty to eat: stunning blue oyster mushrooms.

Keeping it local

Unlike many other gourmet mushroom growers, who often use imported Chinese sawdust as a growing substrate, Unearthed Co uses Australian eucalypt sawdust. This is a by-product of the local milling industry. The farm also uses solar power and runs on tank water, and is currently trialling a plastic-free method of growing mushrooms.

“We have a strong underlying ethos of trying to be as environmentally sustainable as possible,” Ford says. “We also try to make everything that we do 100 percent Australian. That’s why we’re so interested in growing so many new native mushroom varieties. Because we really want to foster the eating of food that grows in this environment. And celebrate the fact that we have some amazing native food here in Australia.

“Certainly, the knowledge that has been lost over the last 200-odd years is a very sad thing. We’re hoping to get that back so people can enjoy more native foods.”

You can find out more about Unearthed Co Mushrooms at unearthedco.com.au. With restaurants in NSW and Victoria closed for so long, this means that there’s plenty more Unearthed Co produce available in retail right now. You can find stockists here.