Watch: Ever wondered how shiitake mushrooms are grown in Norfolk?
Norfolk’s only commercial producers of shiitake mushrooms have been rewarded for their environmental efforts – winning an accolade which has shone a light on this fascinating enterprise.
A secluded, wooded dell hides a niche Norfolk food enterprise whose eco credentials are just as important as its gourmet produce.
Now its owners’ commitment to sustainable production and a low-carbon lifestyle has secured an environmental award – bringing the spotlight onto the cultivation of an Asian ingredient prized by restaurant chefs.
Woodfruits of Norfolk, based in Corpusty near Aylsham, is the county’s only commercial grower of shiitake mushrooms. The firm recently won the environment category at the North Norfolk Business Awards.
It is run by Anton den Engelse and his wife Vicky Riches, who both left careers in a large-scale commercial farm business in order to set up their own venture on a neglected piece of marginal land, with a natural micro-climate conducive to wild mushrooms.
And the operation was designed to be a low-waste, low-carbon model of sustainability.
The mushrooms are grown on substrate blocks made from barley grain and oak sawdust, a by-product from a nearby sawmill.
The fruiting room is inside a redundant shipping container, with walls made from a reclaimed Bird’s Eye blast freezer from Lowestoft, saved from landfill.
Much of the timber has come from discarded wooden cladding from cable reels used to connect the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm, which were rescued in exchange for a charity donation and used for floor boards, cladding and building frames.
The site, which also includes the couple’s home, is almost self-sufficient in energy use thanks to an off-grid solar power supply, rainwater harvesting is used to supply non-food parts of the growing process, and new ways have been found to re-use single-use plastic mushroom bags at least five times before disposal.
Mr den Engelse said: “It is not just about reducing waste. It is about preventing redundance.
“For example, the beauty of using a shipping container is that it has already done its work, so it has paid off its carbon.
“Everything here is done with that in mind. We wanted to create a self-reliant live-work unit. It maybe sounds a bit hippy, but we are certainly not.”
The couple previously both worked with Aylsham Growers, producing 6,500 acres of peas, beans and sprouts.
Mr den Engelse said: “I think we just realised that farming was getting bigger and faster, and that there was an alternative to this idea of an ever-expanding agricultural super-business.
“I understand that if we want to feed a global population you need a global farming enterprise. But that was not for us. We wanted to do something closer to the farm and sensitive to the environment. So we have come from massive scale farming to wanting to be part of our local community and deliver on a local level, and to not be an environmental burden. That is the driver.”
The couple bought the six-acre plot in 2005 and, after a “long a difficult process”, planning permission was granted for the business in 2011, allowing commercial production to start in 2012.
The shiitake mushrooms are constantly monitored and harvested weekly to aid the scheduling of deliveries to local restaurants and farm shops.
“Harvest varies on the demand,” said Mr den Engelse. “If you take a tray of shiitake mushrooms to a chef, invariably they are interested and they want them. If we have too many mushrooms you can dry them and they will keep for six months.
“There is no-one else in Norfolk doing this – it is extremely niche and they need a lot of attention.”
Mr den Engelse said the business is “expanding all the time”, but he is keen for it to stay at a level where he and his wife can spend enough time with their children, Daisy, 17, and Anna, 15.
“It is doing enough to support a family of four, and we are happy with that,” he said. “Since we have been doing this, we have been to every school production and every school fete. If we had still been on the peas, we couldn’t have done that.”
GROWING SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
The Woodfruits growing process begins with bags of sterilised oak sawdust from a local sawmill, which is mixed with barley grain seeded with shiitake mushroom mycelium – the vegetative part of the fungus, consisting of a mass of branching threads.
Bags of this substrate are kept at 24 degrees in a growing room made from an old lorry body. As the mycelium grows, it draws the seed mixture into a block and changes colour from white to brown.
After about 12 weeks the blocks are ready to fruit. They given a 48-hour “cold shock” to kick-start the natural fruiting process, and then transferred to a fruiting room where they are kept at a cooler temperature of 17 degrees. The mushrooms are checked twice a day as they grow and are ready to harvest within about a week. Each block will produce two or three crops of mushrooms.
“They need that temperature shock, as the blocks produce mushrooms as a reflex to environmental change,” said Mr den Engelse. “They can do 0.5kg a block, and we can go up to 30-35kg a week when the demand is there.”
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