INSIDE a dim, cool shed what look like 100 giant salamis are hanging from the ceiling. You wouldn’t want to eat the contents of these cylinders, however. Each is packed tightly with moist, rotting straw.
Strange fleshy layered shelves can be seen growing through the plastic wrapping. In the half-light they look like marble sculpted ears of the softest silver-grey with gills of pure ivory. The forms are no works of art, though, but a miracle of nature cultivated in the heart of the Northumberland countryside by an enterprising South African, Mike Botha.
They are oyster mushrooms, a variety of fungi that have been revered for thousands of years as both a food and a medicine in both Eastern and mid-European cultures, but which by the British are largely ignored thanks to our traditional suspicion of ‘toadstools’.
Fungi generally mean problems – damp, rust and mildew. And a variety as spectacular as the oyster which seeks out recently dead trees in woods and forests to spawn, is to be doubly feared. It is left to the enthusiasts to go out of their way to collect and eat pleurotus ostreatus.
But if Mike Botha has his way oyster mushrooms could soon be giving the acceptable face of edible fungi – the mass produced, usually bland tasting, anaemic-looking button and field varieties favoured by the supermarkets and consumers alike – a run for their money.