Rob and Ernesto with some of their mushrooms

Mushies from the grounds up

Some of the childhood delights of growing up in the 1950s and 60s were the regular visits during late autumn to the country properties of relatives. It was mushroom season.

Hunting for field mushrooms and the sibling rivalry to see who could claim the prize for the biggest and best mushroom ensured there was great exploring to be done. Mushies pan fried in butter on toast for breakfast was a tasty experience but those hunting and gathering expeditions were hard to beat.

These days field mushrooms don’t seem to be as prolific. Some of the blame has been attributed to the use of super phosphate. While still available, field mushrooms have been joined by an array of what once would have been considered exotic varieties that come in a range of shapes, colours and sizes.

Last year Ernesto Sanchez and Rob Scott joined forces in a mushroom growing enterprise, Geelong Fungi’s. They thought growing mushrooms would compliment skills they already had. Ernesto has a background in permaculture and Rob has an interest in bees. They are both former chefs and passionate about food and its production.

Rob started as a chef on the Gold Coast and moved to Geelong in 2011. He worked at the Sailors Rest and then at Book Club Cats before deciding to move away from being a chef.

Ernesto, originally from Columbia, had no cooking experience when he came to Australia. He did a cooking course at The Gordon in receiving awards for International Student of the Year and International Commercial Cookery Student of the Year. He worked at La Campagnola and became head chef before working with the Intercontinental Hotel Group. He is part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Program and is involved in permaculture programs.

Ernesto and Rob gathered information on mushrooms by talking to people but mostly by ‘having a go’ and admit that initially it was just for fun. They began growing different coloured oyster mushrooms in coffee grounds. Ernesto described the reason for the different colours.

“We do different colours depending on the time of the year. When we first started, there were Tan, Grey and Blue Pearl. We still do the Grey but Yellow and Pink. It’s a seasonal thing with the different varieties and it depends on the temperature. Everything is a learning curve, we started growing in winter then when we got to summer it was way too hot so we couldn’t provide a steady supply for restaurants.”

They started an urban farm in Breakwater and now provide more consistent supplies to restaurants. The mushrooms are grown in recycled coffee grounds and straw. Rob and Ernesto have designed their business on Permaculture Ethics and Principles. They recycle the used coffee grounds and once the mushrooms have been harvested they are left with SMS (Spent Mushroom Substrate).

Ernesto was enthusiastic in his praise for this straw and coffee grounds product. “It has a nice balance of carbon and nitrogen and is a perfect food for feeding to worms, putting in the compost or using as mulch for the garden. There is also the value of adding mycelium to the soil that’s critical to soil health. When the SMS is added to the soil under the right conditions more mushrooms can be produced.”

Rod and Ernesto also provide mushrooms in handy ‘Do It Yourself’ packs for growing mushrooms at home. Ernesto explained that the packs are not only good for growing mushrooms but are also an educational experience for children. “They are very easy to grow in the packs. We supply a bag that is fully colonised by the mycelium, so all people have to do is find a spot out of the sunlight and mist spray them 3-4 times a day. A bathroom is usually a good location. You can harvest mushrooms in around 10-15 days and the crop ranges from 150-300 grams.”

Rob explained the reasons behind choosing to grow the oyster mushrooms. “Oyster mushrooms can be easy to grow. You have to get your conditions right but they are very hardy mushrooms under the right conditions. What makes them so easy and pleasurable to work with is that they are a very vigorous mushroom.”

Their mushroom growing philosophy covers more than just being a business. “The way the world is evolving urban farms will play a more important role. It is not just about being successful and making money but about education and the environment as well. We want to be successful but we strive to be as sustainable as we can at the same time. We are an urban mushroom farm and today we went from paddock to market, 3 kms away.”

They are supplying some restaurants and the Q Train in Queenscliff is one of their customers as well as providing mushrooms for special dishes to other local restaurants.

Ernesto and Rob shared a mushroom cooking tip. “The beauty of oyster mushrooms is their versatility. You can cook them the same as supermarket mushrooms or you can be a little more adventurous. If you are going to have them for the first time just cook them in a little olive oil, a little fresh parsley and butter, then pan fry them so you get the real taste and flavour of the mushroom. Fresh turmeric is also nice.”

Their mushrooms are available at South Geelong and Torquay, Farmers Markets. Information from their website geelong or fungis