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Travels Through China’s Mushroom Heartland
Buna Shimeji, Hypsizygus tesselatus growing in glass jars by Lu Xiaoke.
Travels Through China’s Mushroom Heartland
The seat of China’s ancient mushroom industries is facing many changes
In late 2020 I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in China visiting the traditional mushroom-growing areas of southern Zhejiang and northern Fujian provinces. Arriving in Hangzhou I was struck as always by the huge transformation it has undergone over the 35 years since I first visited. Today it is a booming metropolis with the local high-tech economy drawing in people from across the country and pushing up house prices to the point where they are now comparable to the most expensive cities around the world. Also transformed since my early days in China is the ease and speed of travel with the old ‘green trains’ rapidly being replaced with an expanding high speed train network and the old roads with new tolled expressways.
Leaving Hangzhou, the train passed countless new apartment blocks sprouting like forests between the paddy fields. Then as we head south the scenery became more mountainous with frequent tunnels and bridges straddling the valleys in between until we arrived in the city of Lishui situated on the banks of the picturesque river Ou.
It is easy to see why this area is now being developed as a tourist destination with just outside Lishui is a ‘mushroom garden’ established by one of the largest Chinese mushroom companies to cater to the growing number of visitors to the area. The ‘garden’ comes complete with a mushroom museum incorporating displays covering the life cycle of mushrooms and their uses together with some amazing time-lapse photography, a shop offering an extensive selection of the company’s products including dried mushrooms, fried mushroom snacks, mushroom sauces and relishes, drinks and ready meals and a hot-pot restaurant where each dinner gets a mouth-watering selection of fresh mushrooms to cook.
An hour to the south-west of Lishui, my next stop was Longquan, historically regarded as the source of not only the finest celadon ceramics and swords in China but also the finest reishi. Benefiting from the perfect climate and a local population skilled in its cultivation, many small reishi farms dot the hills around the town using the traditional method of growing on short lengths of hardwood logs.
“LIKE MOST OF THE TRADITIONAL MUSHROOM GROWING AREAS, QINGYUAN LARGELY MISSED OUT ON CHINA’S RAPID INDUSTRIALISATION DUE TO ITS REMOTENESS”
This tradition is, however, under threat from increases in the cost of land and labour as well as from new environmental regulations placing restrictions on cutting down trees in the area. In recent years this has led to reishi farmers from Longquan migrating to other areas of China such as Sichuan with cheaper land and fewer restrictions, taking their expertise with them.
There has also been a move towards growing reishi indoors on sawdust rather than whole logs and we visit one such company with ten large warehouses racked out from floor to ceiling growing reishi as well as a variety of edible species. At the moment the price of reishi grown in this way is still higher than log-grown reishi but it is expected that in future the prices will converge as the costs of traditional outdoor production increase and those of indoor production fall with the benefits of scale.
Leaving Longquan by the new expressway the terrain became increasingly mountainous until we arrived in Qingyuan county. Surrounded by the beautiful hills of southern Zhejiang Province, Qingyuan town has been branded as a ‘Mushroom Town’ with the local mushroom industry having an annual turnover in excess of US$ 1 billion and employing 70,000 people out of a total population of 205,000.
Like most of the traditional mushroom growing areas, Qingyuan largely missed out on China’s rapid industrialisation due to its remoteness, unfavourable topography and, until recently, lack of good transport connections. However, being passed by during the rush to develop that followed China’s ‘opening-up’ also meant that this former rural backwater escaped much of the environmental degradation and other negative consequences of the rapid industrialisation that has occurred in many other areas of China in recent years and it still possesses an impressive 86% natural forest cover.
While Qingyuan may have been ‘left behind’ in terms of modern industrial development, it is quite the opposite when it comes to the history of mushroom cultivation. Indeed it was in this place, eight-hundred years ago, that the cultivation of Shiitake mushrooms was first pioneered.
According to legend, the vegetarian Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming dynasty) was given stewed mushroom tofu soup by his advisor Liu Bowen, and on enquiring as to the origins of the mushrooms, was told that they had been grown by a charcoal burner from the mountains in Qingyuan district. So impressed was he by the mushrooms that the Emperor exempted the people of the area from paying tax on their produce for three generations as a sign of his favour.
The charcoal burner was a native of the area called Wu Sangong, whose breakthrough – after witnessing shiitake growing from an axe cut in a log – was to deliberately cut and then artificially inoculate logs with pieces of shiitake and then trigger fruiting by beating the log: what is now known as the ‘cut and tap’ method. He then taught this technique to others in the area with the result that to this day Qingyuan is the main shiitake growing area in China.
Although originally specializing in shiitake cultivation many other varieties are now grown in the area too with its maitake also considered pre-eminent in China.
“LONGQUAN WAS HISTORICALLY REGARDED AS THE SOURCE OF NOT ONLY THE FINEST CELADON CERAMICS AND SWORDS BUT ALSO THE FINEST REISHI IN CHINA”
In 1980, recognising the local concentration of traditional expertise and its potential to develop the regional economy, the Chinese government designated mushroom growing a strategic industry for the area and established a network of research institutes and spore banks to support its growth.
A little outside the town, beside a fast-flowing forest stream next to the road to the nearby Bai Shan Zu (百山祖 – King of a Hundred Mountains), and accessed via one of the covered bridges for which the area is also famous, there sits a small temple erected by the local people to honour the memory of the man responsible for pioneering mushroom cultivation in the area. Every year a shiitake festival is held at the temple during peak season in late autumn including performances telling the story of shiitake cultivation.
In the town itself another must-see for any fungiphile is the Qingyuan Mushroom Museum with three floors of exhibits detailing all aspects of mushroom cultivation, history and culture including a particularly impressive fungarium with over 1,000 specimens. Also, in Qingyuan and equally enticing, although for less academic reasons, is the Mushroom Restaurant. While mushrooms feature prominently on the menus of many restaurants in the area this venue has based its entire offering around them with dishes such as stir-fried maitake with garlic, crispy shredded shiitake and a soup made from boletes and wild herbs harvested from the surrounding hills that will live long in the memory.
To the south of Qingyuan I pass through the foothills of the Wuyi Shan mountains on my way to Gutian which functions as the regional hub for the mushroom industry in this area. As in Qingyuan most of the families in the hills around Gutian are involved in the mushroom industry in one way or another. Some make the artificial logs used to grow the mushrooms, others grow the cultures used to inoculate them and still others inoculate them, grow them, and then to dry them and clean them ready for sale.
“SO IMPRESSED WAS HE BY THE MUSHROOMS THAT THE EMPEROR EXEMPTED THE PEOPLE OF THE AREA FROM PAYING TAX ON THEIR PRODUCE FOR THREE GENER ATIONS AS A SIGN OF HIS FAVOUR”
Operating on slim margins nothing goes to waste. The dryers for harvested fruiting bodies are typically fuelled by the spent sawdust logs on which the mushrooms were grown, the outer plastic skins of the sawdust logs are themselves collected and sold for recycling, and the stipes (stalks) from species like shiitake (as well any fruiting bodies that do not meet the required standard for culinary use) are used for extract or powder manufacture.
Although this area also grows shiitake as well as lion’s mane, oyster and other mushrooms it is for snow fungus (Tremella fuciformis) that it is particularly well known. Requiring a constant temperature of 22-280o C, snow fungus is not grown outdoors under shade canopies (as most other mushrooms are) but in insulated grow houses that can be heated as required in winter. Entering one of the narrow rooms lined with wooden racking on which sit the artificial logs from which the fruiting bodies grow the difference from the brittle dried snow fungus (Yin Er, 银耳 or Bai Mu Er 白木耳) found in most Chinese food stores is striking. These are incredibly tactile, soft and giving, almost calling out to be touched.
Driving through the small villages in the area it is common to see small scale mushroom processing taking place by the side of the road in workshops or even in front of shops. Its labour-intensive nature points to problems ahead, though, as the available workforce shrinks. Young people from rural areas are increasingly migrating to the cities in search of a higher standard of living and less physical work, leaving the older generations behind. In many of the villages in the mountains around Gutian the absence of young people is already noticeable with some villages populated exclusively by ‘empty nest old people’ (空 巢老人) and others on the verge of disappearing entirely.
Travelling towards the coast from Gutian, I reached the city of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province that marks the southernmost point of China’s mushroom heartland. Here in this burgeoning city the emphasis is very much on the future. At Fujian Agricultural University they are pioneering the growing of mushrooms on different species of hardy reeds as a sustainable farming method suitable for less developed countries, and in a hightech zone on the outskirts of the city the finishing touches are being put to a new state of the art mushroom research and development centre at a cost of over RMB 100 million (US$ 15 million). Mushrooms are definitely a cornerstone of life here, and on my last evening in Fuzhou I was honoured to be invited to a ten-course mushroom banquet at a famous Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, featuring a range of elegantly presented fungi-based dishes.
“DRIVING THROUGH THE SMALL VILLAGES IN THE AREA IT IS COMMON TO SEE SMALL SCALE MUSHROOM PROCESSING TAKING PLACE BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD IN WORKSHOPS OR EVEN IN FRONT OF SHOPS”
After weeks surrounded by the sights and tastes of the rich mushroom culture in this region, it can be easy to forget that for many people elsewhere in increasingly urban China their knowledge of mushrooms is limited to a few common culinary varieties. Even the delights of species like maitake are almost unknown outside the areas where they are grown. I was also struck by the fact that while the older generations still use traditional medicine with its reverence for mushrooms such as reishi, the younger generations are less and less likely to turn to these remedies, preferring instead the more symptomatic approach of modern pharmaceutical drugs. Paradoxically the opposite of what we are seeing in many other countries.
At the same time, China is currently witnessing a surge of interest in rural life with popular social media stars posting videos cooking country-style food and the increasing popularity of rural tourism, known as nong jia le (农家乐), literally ‘farm home happy’ in Chinese. With a growing dissatisfaction with the pressures of modern life and the corresponding search for more traditional or sustainable ways of living I feel it is only a matter of time before more laypeople in China re-discover the joy of mushrooms and the beauty of their mushroom heartlands and become mycophiles like the rest of us.
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