Market's Ms Mushroom

Kate Wendelgelst with some of the bags of sawdust, straw and compost in which the mushrooms grow....
Kate Wendelgelst with some of the bags of sawdust, straw and compost in which the mushrooms grow. Photos by Gerard O'Brien.
Enoki mushrooms are traditionally used in soups and stir fries.
Enoki mushrooms are traditionally used in soups and stir fries.

A fascination with growing unusual things has led Kate Wendelgelst to growing mushrooms. Charmian Smith reports.

Kate Wendelgelst, of Stonehurst Gourmet Mushrooms, is amused when people insist on telling her they don't like mushrooms.

Since November she has been selling fresh and dried oyster mushrooms at the Otago Farmers Market.

Originally she planned to grow truffles on her 2ha block in Halfway Bush, but because there's a three to five year wait before you know whether they are going to work, she decided to grow other mushrooms in the meantime.

''It's a big gamble, but it's a possible income and I can be at home. I always liked growing things, and I must admit, the weirder the better,'' she said.

A solo mother with two young children, she says she is growing multicoloured beetroot and cauliflower and other unusual vegetables this year.

Raised on a farm in South Otago, she used to pick mushrooms from the paddocks and riverbank, although you had to beat the flies to them, she said.

''When you were a kid you'd look out in the morning and all of a sudden there would be mushrooms everywhere but here it's taken three months to get just one [meadow mushroom] coming through.

"Actually, they don't just pop up overnight, I think when it's hidden in long grass you don't see it.''

When she left school she started a horticultural degree at Lincoln but decided she didn't want to study economics or rock science which were compulsory topics so she moved to the University of Otago and did an arts degree instead.

After a couple of years working in a plant nursery, she and her ex-husband bought a lifestyle block and later a sheep and beef farm. When they separated she bought land and a house at Halfway Bush, and thought about what to grow on it, she said.

She couldn't grow flowers for the market because rabbits were an issue.

''Mushrooms appealed, probably because not many people are doing it, and it's got that challenge factor to it - I never take the easy way. [It] also helps that I like mushrooms.''

Mushroom growers were reluctant to share their knowledge and a lot of it was contradictory.

Even textbooks only tell you so much then stop before explaining the details of how to do it, she said.

''You can read many things and there will be completely different information. It's like looking after kids - someone will tell you one thing and someone else another but you just go with what works.''

She has returned to university to do a science degree and particularly to study fungi, wanting to know why they grow as well as how they grow.

So far she is producing oyster mushrooms; her enoki have stared growing but because they are so delicate she still needs to figure out how to pick and package them. Black poplar mushrooms are on their way now, she hopes, and shiitake are waiting for warmer weather to fruit.

Field mushrooms should be available in a couple of months, she said. Because of the cost of growing field mushrooms commercially and their wide availability she would be looking at a less intensive experimental method of growing them naturally outdoors, she said.

At present she is just growing saprophytic mushrooms, which grow in bags filled with straw and sawdust or compost in her brick shed, but she also wants to grow mycorrhizal fungi, which only grow outdoors in association with trees and will take some years to develop.

She plans to grow bianchetto truffles and saffron milkcaps on stone pine trees which will also produce pine nuts, and possibly porcini.

She thinks she may already have birch boletes but needs to identify them correctly, she says.

Because she has met several people who started then gave up growing mushrooms she is cautious about investing more money into the project until she has proved she can do it. However, a heating system would allow her to maintain a constant temperature.

At present she only sells her mushrooms at the market.

Although her oyster mushrooms will last a week in the fridge she doesn't feel happy about selling mushrooms that old, so she dries those she harvests earlier in the week and in the next few weeks will trial pates and spread made from the early mushrooms.

''I don't want to sell to supermarkets because I don't want my product, with my name attached to it, to sit on a shelf for a week. Ideally I'd like to find somewhere else to sell them as well, but I need continuity of supply.''


Tips for cooking mushrooms

• All mushrooms taste mushroomy but they all have different slants to their flavour, Wendelgelst says.

• Oyster mushrooms are mildly flavoured and can be dominated by strong flavours, so use them with milder flavours such as chicken.

• Used in mince and casseroles they tend to help mellow the flavour rather than add to it. Like other mushrooms, oyster mushrooms can be fried, added to soups, casseroles or stir fries, used on pizzas or in omelettes. They can also be eaten raw - just wipe them with a cloth. They make delicious bite-sized snacks and can be used with a dip.

• Enoki are traditionally used in soups and stir fries but she likes them raw in salads.

• Flavourful big meadow mushrooms, can be treated like a pizza base and topped with cheese and other things then baked or grilled - there's no need to peel them first.

• Dried mushrooms, which should be crisp, can be crushed with a rolling pin to make mushroom powder. It can be added to water to make a stock or to stews and casseroles when you want mushroom flavour without chunks of mushroom - it's also easy to hide mushrooms that way, Wendelgelst said.

• Dried mushrooms can be reconstituted by soaking in warm water for about 30 minutes then draining before cooking. The flavourful soaking water can be used in sauces and gravies, or can be frozen for later.

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