Alex and the Fungarium

By Alex Martin – Embercombe Chef & Kitchen Facilitator

mushroom-photo-2We are currently entering the fruiting period for the second inoculation of the Fungarium, an oyster mushroom-growing project situated on the lane adjacent to the Medicine Garden. The first inoculation, begun in April, its fruits harvested between late June and mid-July, yielded just over 16kg of white oyster mushrooms for preparation and consumption by the Embercombe community and visiting course participants.

Though relatively mild of their own account, oyster mushrooms boast a supple, porous consistency ideal for infusion with complementary flavours. Culinary highlights so far include Hungarian (/ “Hungarium”) mushroom soup – diced, sauteed oyster mushrooms delicately seasoned with smoked paprika, fresh dill, garlic and cracked black pepper – and risotto di funghi, whose suffused mushrooms and rice provide the consummate vehicle for the sumptuous flavours of cooking cider, last December’s preserved lemons, fresh thyme and wilted leek tops. Fruits of the Fungarium also provide a low cholesterol source of protein, vitamin D and potassium, amongst other nutritional benefits.

I first put forward the idea of introducing shed-based mushroom growing to Embercombe in my application to become a kitchen assistant in November 2015. Other than having watched myco-remediation guru Paul Stamets’ excellent TED talk, 6 Ways Mushroom Can Save the World, and having heartily enjoyed the flavour and texture of bought and foraged mushrooms in food, I had very little experience of fungi or mycology. But proposing something of this nature, at this time, felt somehow de rigueur. At interview it scarcely felt expedient to reveal the extent of my ignorance to the interview panel, nor the fact that in mechanical terms I am an intensely impractical person, more at home in the world of concepts and senses than brute objects and their apparatus. In step with the Anthopocene’s generalised myopia, I was content to profit, in this way, with scant regard for, and, if need be, at the expense of, my future self.

Once my application had been accepted, I was committed to mushroom growing, committed by my own foolhardy banzai. It was clear to me that to welch at this stage would be to let down myself and Embercombe; abstract pitch had given way to de facto contractual obligation. I intuited, further, that to commit sacrilege against Mycelium and its nebulous mass of branching, thread-like hyphae by failing to fulfil that which I had pledged, was unlikely to end well for me. I was as a fly to its spidery web.

Back home in London last Christmas I came clean to my good friend Turiya Peacesmith, a dedicated amateur mycologist and hobbyist. Mercifully she offered to lend me a hand with the putative Fungarium’s design and implementation, and during the following months we began to discuss its infrastructure. What struck me then, as it gladdens me now, on reflection, is how little is needed to set up a small-scale ‘forced’ mushroom growing project, and how many of the requisite materials consist in by-products gleaned from processes already underway here at Embercombe.

The design for our own project is based around, and within, a housing shell provided by a disused garden shed, insulated with sheep’s wool (oyster mushrooms prefer temperatures between 15 and 20 degrees celsius) and lined with polyethylene sheeting – the shed’s interior must be frequently humidified during fruiting periods. The winsome phrase, “I’m off to humidify The Fungarium”, offers a particularly satisfying pretext for a stroll.

Straw, sourced initially from Fred’s garden supplies, is used as the bulk substrate. It is pasteurised prior to inoculation in order to eliminate potential competitors for the mycelium. Turiya, channelling Stamets, recommended that pasteurisation be undertaken “cold” as an alternative to energy-intensive, logistically tricksy heating procedures. As a means of raising the pH of the straw to the required basicity, it is soaked over night in a solution of water and sieved wood ash, typically procured from the wood burners in Centre Fire and the pizza ovens. The straw is drip-dried in mesh bags intended for onion storage, which are hung upon oak pegs protruding from the Linhay.

Next up the pasteurised straw is inoculated, which for the Fungarium’s purposes involves distributing clumps of oyster mushroom spawn amongst the straw’s dank stalks, on a tarpaulin. The spawn constitutes a pure culture oyster mushroom mycelium, grown, in our case, on bird feed, in Belgium.

Our spawn is acquired from Eric Jong and Adam Sayner at GroCycle, a local mushroom-growing social enterprise pioneering the use of disused urban space to cultivate oyster mushrooms. Vacant offices in Exeter are converted into makeshift growing rooms, and used coffee grounds, collected from coffee shops in the city centre by bicycle, are used as a ready-sterilised bulk substrate. Eric and Adam have given of their time freely to offer advice and encouragement to me, and so I think of GroCycle as one of the Fungarium’s principal patrons.

Inoculated straw is then stuffed inside rubble bags. The bags are tied and suspended from S-shaped wire hooks attached to an internal wooden framework within the shed. This framework was designed and constructed by site assistant Sam Platt during his free time. There is space for between 12 and 14 bags to be hung in this way. Having been individually suspended, it is time for colonisation to take place within the bags, according to which mycelium contained in the clumps of spawn distributed amongst the pasteurised straw establishes a network of strands extending, ultimately, throughout the straw. This takes place over a period of between 2 weeks and a month. Sufficiently extensive colonisation, indicated visually by the formation of a thick, white, fluffy, labyrinthine pith of mycelial strands interweaving stalks of dewy straw, precipitates fruiting.

Fruiting begins with the formation of “pinheads”, small, darkened, globular protuberances peeking through perforations in the sides of the rubble bags, and culminates after 3 or 4 days, when optimum mushroom size has been attained, and before their shape begins to deteriorate into a bedraggled concave curviture, reminiscent of a gnawed, upside-down pig’s ear or damaged bonnet. Mushrooms are then harvested, weighed and stored in brown paper bags before being cooked and eaten as soon as possible.

As is the case with the construction of so many of the infrastructural cells that comprise the Embercombe organism, what has been most rewarding about getting the Fungarium off the ground has been the involvement of such a diverse range of people in its phased actualisation, and the various benefits, often unexpected, derived thereby.

Having been pivotal to the whole project, my friend Turiya was able, via the Fungarium and her knowledge and experience of mushroom growing, to experience Embercombe life in all it fullness during the time she spent here working on the project. Sam was able to flex his muscle on an infrastructure project, albeit a very small one, during the early days of his ascent into the upper echelons on the Site team.

It was an Experience Weekend at Embercombe during the first few days of the Fungarium’s construction, and so there were children of all ages involved in the insulation process, daubing wads of wool into crevices in the shed’s pannelling. From hide of sheep to infant hand to shed wall it went. The woolly cavity between the the Fungarium’s outer frame and its internal polyethylene lining has now even become home to a family of field mice. The refugee and assylum seeker outreach project launched by Niaomh Convery and Marianna Riddle this year also coincided with the early construction period, which brought the skills of two carpenters from Eritrea, Zaki and Sami, to bear upon the structure’s finalisation.

The Fungarium was re-inoculated in early August. I was graciously assisted in this by Jimmy Marlow, Keren Kossow, and also by Cornelia Altgard, whose tenacity as a heroic and largely unsung humidifier has been absolutely essential to the project’s viability. This second inoculation has sadly failed, thus far, to result in colonisation of quite the same standard of imperial health as the first, due, I have been reliably informed by Eric at GroCycle, to the straw not having been dried enough prior to bagging. This has resulted in anaerobic irregularity, as well as in a sour, cheesy bouquet issuing forth from the shed. The first bag began fruiting on September 5, however, so all, it would seem, is not yet lost. Rather than allow myself to become too disheartened by the ominously pungent aroma issuing forth from the inundated bags, I have chosen to invest faith in the mycelium, in its ability to adapt and remediate the bloopers of humans. This faith has served me well so far, from application form to practical application. The Fungarium is a work in progress.