In a tunnel under a hill between Bowral and Mittagong lies a fascinating but not so well kept secret. We visited mushroom grower Dr Noel Arrold’s underground world of delicious decomposition…
WHEN Dr Noel Arrold lets slip he has dined with Xi Jinping, Communist Party leader of China, my initial suspicions are confirmed. Noel is no ordinary farmer. In fact, if I were to be really puerile, I’d say he’s a really fun guy.
Terrible witticisms aside, Noel is a mushroom expert, a fungi fanatic. In fact the Australian microbiologist is a leading world authority on the spawning, growing and picking of gourmet and exotic fungi. I meet this sprightly 76-year-old at his place of work, namely a subterranean cave like tunnel, where I hear his tale of chowing down with the President of the People’s Republic of China. And it soon becomes very clear that Noel is not your average senior citizen.
For the past 30 years Noel has grown exotic and gourmet mushrooms in a 650 metre long tunnel that runs under the hill from Bowral to Mittagong. Built in 1865 as part of the original single lane track from Sydney to Canberra, the tunnel, carved from limestone, became obsolete when a new double line track opened in 1919. During World War II it was used to hide munitions and, when hostilities ended, it lay dormant for years before its consistent humidity and temperature of 15-16°C were identified as perfect to replicate nature’s requirements for mushroom growing. A friend sold the business to Noel in the 1970s. It’s dim and slightly dank inside, which is ideal. Light is not important, as mushrooms do not photosynthesise.
‘In the wild in Asia, where many exotic mushrooms originate, mushrooms grow in woods and within forest floor litter,’ says Noel, whose tunnel is unique to Australia and famed within mushroom knowing circles. ‘They like damp, cool conditions to grow and flourish, which is why the tunnel is perfect.’
Originally a Cooma boy, Noel studied science at Sydney University and had plans to become a teacher. He was persuaded otherwise when a professor casually mentioned grants were available for students following more research based work. He went on to write his PhD on diseases in mushrooms, and later studied at Penn State University’s world renowned Faculty of Microbiology and Immunology, and The Glasshouse Crops Research Institute in Southampton, UK.
‘I have always enjoyed my work as a scientist because it’s all about systems,’ says Noel. ‘Cultivating systems, growing systems, picking systems that work. I am at heart a microbiologist after all, and fungi are very interesting organisms.’
Noel replicates the conditions of nature in his unique mushroom farm. The inoculation of the species of mushrooms he grows takes place in his Mittagong laboratory. Mushroom spawn is any substance that has been inoculated with mycelium, the vegetative growth of a fungus, and is the base for producing mushrooms.
Noel uses two techniques for growing his mushrooms in the tunnel. Biodegradable spool shaped sacks filled with inoculated straw are spiked on every spare inch of space, like a giant wall of sewing bobbins, only these ones grow things. On the other side, logs fashioned from sawdust have the slower growing, prized shiitake. As well as the shiitake, Noel grows enoki, wood ear, shimeji, nameko and oyster varieties, as well as your more household types such as king brown, chestnut and button mushrooms.
After the mushroom spawn is transported to the tunnel, it will lay dormant in the inoculated logs Noel has fashioned from eucalypt sawdust before it begins fruiting.
Entering the mushroom tunnel for the first time is like walking into some Harry Potter like catacomb filled with thousands of tiny growing organisms. With its earthy smell, stone floors and huge steel reinforced door, it’s the sort of environment a vampire, or a teenager come to think of it, might choose to inhabit.
Noel walks five kilometres a day up and down the tunnel. Mushroom growing is labour intensive and picking takes place six mornings a week for two hours with the help of a small workforce of mostly Taiwanese backpackers. Together they pick 1.7 tonnes or 1700 kilograms of mushrooms a week, which all go to market. You know those cute little button mushrooms you pick up by the punnet at Harris Farm, Woolworths or Coles to add to your casserole? Noel was the first person to bring them to Australia under his business, Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms, named after daughter Lisa and son Sam (‘sun’ meaning son in Japanese). Noel was also the first grower in Australia to produce fresh shiitake, and must take some of the credit for Australians being the second largest consumer of the button mushroom behind the French. Indeed, where once Noel’s mushrooms were cooked in the kitchens of Sydney’s hatted restaurants such as Tetsuya’s, Bennelong and Quay, today he says he is pushed to keep up with demand from your average Jo.
‘Since the explosion of those cooking shows on TV, with Manu and Peter and those MasterChef boys, we can barely keep up with demand. Coles and Woolworths are our big customers, but we sell to Harris Farm too. You can buy ours in Bowral,’ says Noel.
When he is not in the tunnel, Noel is in his Mittagong laboratory spawning mushrooms, experimenting with new methods, and looking at new uses for fungi in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Most of the species Noel grows occur naturally in forests as wood degrading fungi.
‘Mushrooms in the wild have a unique and vital role in our ecosystem,’ says Noel. ‘They grow on dead trees and dead wood and use the carbon as a food source. Because of carbon in trees, the lignin can’t decompose without fungi. The organic matter in the fungi decomposes and degrades the organic matter, returning the carbon back into the earth. Mushrooms are the earth’s great degrader.’
Mushrooms are also a rich source of protein and food to many of China’s population of two billion says Noel, who has made several trips with fellow world experts to discuss mushroom production. On his last visit he found himself seated as guest of honour next to President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.
‘He may be the President of the world’s most populous nation but he is also an agricultural scientist,’ says Noel. ‘He speaks English very well and was very interested in the growing we are doing in Australia.’
Tours of Noel’s mushroom tunnel are held on the Sunday of every long weekend. The next is Sunday April 21 and Sunday June 9, Queens Birthday weekend. For more upcoming dates for tours li-sunexoticmushrooms.com.au