More than half a decade ago, marine scientist John Ford began growing mushrooms in his backyard, eventually farming enough to sell to cafes in his local area under the King Oyster Mushrooms banner. By late 2019 he was supplying some of Victoria’s best restaurants. Then Covid hit.
Now trading as Unearthed Co Mushrooms, he’s partnered with a number of grocers across the city so you can get his mushrooms to cook with at home. Find them at Ceres Fair Food (there’s also Melbourne-wide delivery), The Leaf Store in Hawthorn and Elwood, The Mushroom Man in Prahran Market, and Unwrapped Pantry in Belgrave South.
He grows around a dozen varieties, including shiitake, enoki, pioppino and oyster (including king, blue, yellow and shimeji). He also sells them in retail boxes; for example, there’s a stir-fry-perfect mix that complements Asian flavours and sauces.
But Unearthed is also helping to supply restaurant and home kitchens with native Australian fungi. Along with colleague Russell Whittam, Ford cloned the snowflake mushroom and worked out what it feeds on, the conditions it needs to thrive in, and how best to replicate all those factors in climate-controlled rooms, with a view to growing the variety on a larger scale.
“We knew it was edible. Next was: what does it taste like raw? What’s the texture [like] cooked? And what we found with this snowflake mushroom is that it’s incredibly versatile,” Ford says. “It’s got a bit of that seafood flavour to it – not in a fishy way, more like a lobster or crab flavour with that subtle sweetness.”
The indigenous mushroom has a milky white colour, with a spine-like structure that resembles icicles – hence the name – or spindly coral (it’s also known as the coral tooth mushroom). It’s edible raw and makes a beautiful garnish thanks to its standout shape. When cooked it has a more intense flavour and is great in soups.
It didn’t take long for chefs to start experimenting with the snowflake mushroom. “I think when you get a new variety of mushrooms – particularly one that’s really Australian – that’s exciting [for chefs], but also it actually tastes great. And it’s a bush food, too. There’s a lot of interest in native ingredients, so to have a native mushroom like this is really exciting.”
Unearthed also grows less-common species like nameko, abalone and lion’s mane. “I think because we pay attention to each individual mushroom variety and we really try to create the optimal conditions for them, then we can get them right,” Ford says. “They’re grown in the conditions that they want to grow in, so they end up being a better mushroom.”
Find a list of Unearthed Co Mushrooms stockists here.