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Gourmet mushrooms pop up, down in the woods By Ian Herbert, North of England Correspondent 30 December 2004
The farmers of Yorkshire have missed few revenue-raising tricks over the past 10 years but even they admit that cultivating shiitake, morel and chicken-of-the-woods beneath logs in woodlands had never dawned on them.
An experiment in a remote part of the North York Moors National Park suggests the effort may be worth it. The national park authority, which is not short of logs and a wood or two, is harvesting its first yields, in a development which may do as much for the future of the woodlands as for farmers.
The species are gourmet mushrooms which yield some Chinese farmers up to ?500 a kilo for one exotic variety and, in Yorkshire, should bring in ?25 a kilo from fine-food restaurants and shops. Their cultivation also provides a commercial purpose for broad-leaved woods left to decline as timber prices have fallen below 1976 levels. Now a centuries-old and simple form of agricultural technology allows mushrooms to be grown in felled trees. Holes are drilled in the logs and plugged with pieces of silver birch impregnated with types of mycelium, from which mushrooms sprout.
For woodlands, this may be a lifesaver. The low timber prices mean landowners have little incentive to manage woodland. Vast areas have remained untended and unfenced, the new shoots that grow as old trees fall are eaten by animals, including livestock. So the national park has ploughed ?20,000 into the cultivation of seven 100-log farms, some on its own land, others on private estates.
Its own mushroom plots fell within a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) so it was limited by English Nature to cultivation of indigenous varieties. But other landowners are growing more obscure crops. Shiitake, prized for its smoky flavour and meaty texture and indigenous to the forests of China, is among them. Others include chicken-of-the-woods, predictably with its texture of chicken breast; hen-of-the-woods, highly prized for succulent leaves; the tiny orange winter mushroom, and varieties of the large, flat-capped, fast-growing oyster mushroom, including the indigenous Yorkshire oyster. Another variety, artist's conk, works as a medicinal infusion.
"The mushrooms we've cultivated on our own land are winter fruiting so we have them already," said Rachel Wood, the North York Moors National Park sustainable development officer. "A market is developing in pubs and restaurants but equally this is about proving a future for the woodlands; about seeing the value in things [not yet] seen as of value."
The yield on the fledgling crops is about ?25 a kilo, she said, between five and 10 times more lucrative than timber.
The national park has been helped by Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms, which updated the technology. The company is working on a similar project with the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and provides kits that enable home-growers to nurture crops on their back patios.
Of the 5,000 wild varieties in Britain, Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms has found 14 that can be inoculated into logs. A company founder, Peter Watson, said: "China has been growing mushrooms out of timber for 500 years. Mushrooms are also great recyclers. You can grow them on newspapers, old copies of Yellow Pages , anything. You only have to treat it as a shade-loving plant."
Mushrooms can be very profitable. The dark, crusty-looking Tricholoma matsutake , at up to ?500 a kilo, arrives in walnut caskets from Yunnan, in south-west China. They sell for ?18 a bowl in some London restaurants.