Polyspore: I came on a mushroom quest and stumbled upon the beetles as new number one act

It was the start of a voyage of discovery that took in cultivating my own King Blue mushrooms and encountering bizarrely beautiful beetles in a former iron foundry, the complexities of the World Wood Web and the future of insects as our planet’s food. Stockport was where the trail began…

No meal at Where The Light Gets In is complete without at least one mushroom dish. The newly crowned Manchester Food and Drink Awards Restaurant of the Year has been a key player in revitalising the town and trumpeting the use of local produce. So at a dinner there we tackled chef-patron Sam Buckley about the provenance of the fungi on the plate he’d just served us. 

His reply: “They grew in floorboard cracks beneath us.” WTLGI resides in an old mill, so plenty of growing matter there. Yet that wasn’t the answer we’d expected. We knew Sam’s team had kick-started the fungal phenomenon that is the Polyspore project by some creative outsourcing of pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom to you).

After which word spread and demand for Polyspore’s products just, well, mushroomed. If Cinderwood Market Garden near Nantwich is key fruit and veg supplier to Manchester’s most savvy new eating places, these Altrincham-based specialists boast their own kitchen champions.

Check out the above treatment of seven different Polyspore fungi by Another Hand, MFDF Newcomer of the Year. They are lightly sautéed with buttered radicchio, then topped with an emulsion of 18 month fermented, unripened pine cone syrup and sherry vinegar plus hazelnuts and horseradish. Glorious food, made from the freshest of raw materials. They have to be. Polyspore is rated as a ‘prime food producer’, not a business, so aren’t allowed to dry or refrigerate the mushrooms. Hence it’s straight from harvesting to table inside 25 minutes.

It’s all an unlikely but heartwarming success story that began messily in a Fallowfield communal bathroom. Not much more than a year on from starting growing from scratch founders Mike Fothergill and Dylan Pybus were shortlisted for Indie Food Producer of the Year at those same MFDF Awards.

Time to catch up with them at their Radium House Unit 2 base, just a 10 minute walk from the Navigation Road Metrolink station. Except that Dylan was off poorly. His absence was compensated for by the presence of Dale Gee, beetle expert extraordinaire and co-pilot with the pair on an exciting new adventure. About which more anon.

How did it all start, Mike? “I’d been working at Port Street Beer House and Dylan was a chef. Both of us were made redundant during the COVID crisis and were desperate for a new direction. We were living in a damp, mouldy house in Fallowfield. Friends joked it was only for for growing mushrooms in. So eventually we did. Using the bath!”

But how did you get the knowledge? “Mostly via YouTube and some rednecks on the internet who will try to teach you anything. There’s always a close-knit community of mushroom growers always ready to assist. We learnt all about mycelium, this network of fungal threads or hyphae. They grow underground or in rotting tree trunks. The fruiting bodies of fungi, such as mushrooms, can sprout from a mycelium.”

Any teething troubles, Mike? “You bet. We soon discovered that if you’re not doing it in a lab with filtered air, it’s very difficult. You end up growing a lot of green mould and not many mushroom. A bath certainly wasn’t ideal. Sterilising everything became vital. I’d failed to complete a chemistry degree but that scientific background was important.”

The duo went up a level, tripling capacity, when they moved into their current home at Radium House, once an iron foundry, now divided into workshop units. Here is their 2m x 3m growing tent, fitted with an extractor fan and subdued lighting, which provide the perfect temperature, humidity and conditions in which to grow. 

They purchase liquid cultures of different mushroom species and, using a syringe, inoculate the cloned mycelium into a substrate mix of sustainable birch sawdust and soya bean hulls, rich in nitrogen to create the biomass perfect for fungi growth. This is wrapped in biodegradable bags. Allow a few days to germinate, cut open a flap and allow the mushrooms to fruit out into the fresh air within days.

Mike kindly gave me a bag of coveted King Blues to take home. After a worryingly fallow period in the cellar they finally exploded into a glut this week (above). Polyspore’s signature earner is the oyster mushroom and its kin, but they are always experimenting. Look at the kaleidoscopic array of rivals – watercolour oysters, black king pearls and lion’s mane,

Mike pointed out an elm oyster they are trialling. Some of their mushrooms have been supplied to Balance Brewing and Blending who are currently brewing a mushroom beer. (What a pity the name ‘Breakfast of Champignons’ has already been used for an ale.) 

And it’s not just about culinary. The duo have been looking at reishi, a cortisone-reducing fungus that is important in Chinese medicine. You sense this is a labour of love, not just a commercial exercise. Still the duo plan to expand to three grow tents, so they can rotate them. All this is down to a recent £30,000 windfall that has pushed them towards a groundbreaking new project. They have secured this grant from Innovate UK, a government organisation that funds bio-technology. Step forward Dale Gee and his stable of stag beetles. Until this point in my life I didn’t realise how lucrative the beetles-as-pets markets could be. Not that that’s the driving force behind Dale’s move into an adjacent unit at Radium House.

The draw is that exploratory joint venture, full title Mushroom and Beetle Symbiosis for a Circular Economy. Essentially seeking to use beetles to break down substrate fibres into edible gourmet protein and fertiliser. It will take six months to set up this attempt to transform the current situation where industrial level mushroom producers find it difficult to biodegrade their core growing material. “Also with the food implications it could prove globally important,” Mike said. 

I told him I was ready to feast on grubs and crunchy crickets and had been thwarted by post-Brexit bureaucracy during a spring visit to Pembrokeshire’s ground-breaking Dr Benyon’s Bug Farm restaurant. Hard, though, on site at Radium House to consider as snacks the beautiful Obsidian Stag or Japanese Rhino beetles scuttling gingerly onto Dale’s fingers.

At home 10 days later, less challengingly, I slice my freshly harvested King Blues and sauté them with garlic and parsley before strewing them on a saffron, parmesan and and bone marrow rich risotto alla Milanese.

So what else can mycelium do for our planet?

I read in on learned report that “A fungal bio-mass equivalent to about 15 sheep lives under each football pitch sized piece of English permanent organic pasture. Thus, despite being microscopic, the biomass of mycelia in these grasslands matches and possibly outweighs that of animals.

“Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon—a veritable behemoth that periodically kills the forest, producing deep rich soil in which taller trees can grow before their turn comes to be felled by their fungal recycler. The biomass of these fungal networks is immense: several tonnes of mycelium can exist in one hectare of Swedish forests. Other fungi are tiny, such as the unicellular yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, without whose help there would be no baking or brewing.”

It all feels very complex, like the allied concept of the World Wood Web, an underground ‘social’ network found in forests and other plant communities, created by the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi joining with plant roots. This network connects individual plants together and transfers water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals between participants.

A good introduction to this remarkable parallel universe underneath our feet is Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures (The Bodley Head, £20). But the acknowledged fungi guru is Ohio’s Paul Stamets (above right). No shrinking violet, he sometimes sports a crown made by Transylvanian artisans from a spongey mushroom derivative called Amadou. 

In his 2005 gospel, Mycelium Running), he trumpets the capacity of mushrooms to clean up soil and rid land from various forms of pollution. The name for this is mycoremediation. Oil spills, even radioactive contamination – mycelium can tackle them, removing toxins and releasing the movement of nutrients and water through the soil.

On a local ecological level the Polyspore team have proposed their own Manchester clear-up projects, notably Highfield Country Park, a 70-acre area of open land bordering Levenshulme. Parts of it are seriously degraded after half a century of clay extraction, landfill, and as a site for dye and bleaching operations and a tripe factory. Could the insertion of mycelian mats help reclaim its health? 

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