Saturday, November 04, 2006

The wrong kind of fungus

This mysterious-looking rectangular polystyrene box was a present from my brother for my birthday, and it's not something I've been given before. It's a DIY home mushroom growing kit, of all things. I've never grown anything in my life, and as a fan of mushrooms (and food in general), I was keen to give it a go. I mean, how hard can it be?

This is what the insides look like - a bag of soil and a grey spongey layer of 'mycelium', a musty-smelling mixture of mulch and the all-important spores. Apparently this mycelium congregates beneath the surface of the earth and occasionally sends up an above-ground spore-producing structure consisting of a shaft and a cap, or Mushroom, as we call it. Wrongly, as it turns out, as according to Wikipedia - "The technical term for the spore-producing structure of "true" mushrooms is the basidiocarp." But then nobody likes a smartarse.

On opening the instructions, I quickly realised this wasn't going to be as simple as mixing the two bits together and waiting in the kitchen with the frying pan ready. After breaking up the grey layer and leaving it for a week to breathe, the next step was to mix the soil with half a pint of water and carefully placing it onto the mycelium. Then the box needed to be kept warm and moist for '5 to 8 days'. After which - and the key bit was marked in bold text "It is important that the mycelium does not grow on the surface" - the top of the box comes off and the budding fungi can be carefully misted with water from a plant sprayer (not supplied), and then it's omelettes all round.

So here I am all ready to go. The mycelium has been left for a week, the soil combined with the water to give the consistency of lightly sticky mud, and carefully placed on the soon-to-be-seething mass. Reading the small print on the instructions again, I was disheartened to see that the box has to be 'incubated' at at least 24C for the '5 to 8 day' period where the mushies start to prosper. Well, I live in an airy (i.e. cold) tenement flat in chilly Jocko-land, without an airing cupboard or similarly warm place. I decide to wrap the box in a couple of towels and hope for the best.

...and this is what I get. I'm no mycologist, but I reckon the mycelium might be growing on the surface here - what do you think? If not, these are some pretty wierd looking button mushrooms. Throughout the process I was checking under the soil to see how they were getting on, mindful of the depth issue with regard to the topsoil, but at every step there was nothing happening. It must have been too cold for the mycelium to germinate properly, I reckon. After the '5 to 8 days' had become '10 days with naff all mushrooms' I put the top back on and left it for another week, undisturbed. This was the scene when I re-opened the lid, which had me jumping out of the way in case my creations decided to turn on their master.

Apparently there are at least 1.5 million species of fungi in the world - although now there might be 1,500,001.