The magical mushrooms of Ormskirk

Lancashire is a land packed with brilliant food producers – and the fungi fanatics of Ormskirk are no exception. Roger Borrell reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson

There was an old joke among shop stewards in the 60s that workerson the shop floor were treated like mushrooms - kept in the dark and occasionally showered in manure.

I’m not sure about the state of modern industrial relations, but mushroom growing has certainly come blinking into the daylight if a thriving Lancashire business is any yardstick.

The people running award-winning Smithy Mushrooms are the first familyof exotic fungi, supplying top national stores, including Tesco, and our own Lancashire-based Booths.

Lorry loads of their produce go to major markets from London to Glasgow and there is only one other firm that can rival them and they are based in the south of England.

The business, based in Smithy Lane, Scarisbrick, near Ormskirk, started up in 1994 growing the more common white mushrooms. Former plumber John Dorrian started working at the company and ended up running the place as managing director. He was joined by his electrician brother, Mal, who is now the technical director.

They spotted the growing popularity of exotic mushrooms and decided to abandon the conventional and start producing the unusual. The result isa company employing around 30 people and harvesting tonnes of fungi every week.

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Whenever and wherever you spot one of those punnets of colourful fungi in a supermarket or a good quality greengrocer, the chances are theyhave been grown here. The company also sells wild mushrooms, suchas girolles and chanterelles, when in season plus some delicious dried varieties.

John and his team - which includes mum Jean, dad Jack, sister Lynn and sundry offspring working as part-timers and casuals - started off with oyster mushrooms, which come pink, yellow or grey.

From there, they began growing shiitake and they are the only large volume UK growers. The next big thing - quite literally - is the king oyster mushrooms, which are hugely popular in Japan.

To say the business has mushroomed is probably a pun too far, but the growth at Smithy Lane has been spectacular.

‘The level of demand meant we invested in six new growing rooms two years ago,’ says Mal. ‘The great thing about the business is that it’s not seasonal. We can create the conditions that allow us to grow all year round. We now have eight sheds for growing oyster mushrooms and another 11 for shiitake.’

The first thing that strikes you as you enter the sheds is the misty atmosphere followed by the amazing burst of vibrant colour.

If you thought all fungi was brown and grown in dark, dank sheds full of compost, you’d be wrong. These delicate, exotic creates require 12 hours of light, fresh air and humid conditions. The atmosphere inside is as steamy as an x-rated film and microscopic spores fill the air. ‘I have to wear a face mask or I feel as if I’ve got flu for a few hours,’ says Mal. ‘It affects different people in different ways. Some of the team can operate without a mask and it has no effect on them.’

The mushrooms are grown on substrate blocks brought in from France. They contain wheat, straw and oak sawdust which replicate the natural growing base and add flavour to the end product.

The sheds are environmentally-controlled and each is devoted to a different variety so the growing conditions are changed to suit the mushroom. Some like heat and high humidity, others prefer to grow in cooler conditions.

The harvesting is done by hand and some mushrooms are ready within a week, while others can take three times longer. There are no chemicals used in the process and the old substrate blocks are recycled for use on a local farm.

Quality control is a major part of the daily process at Smithy and a tasting panel meets every month to check for flavour and texture. ‘I also do my own taste tests,’ adds Mal. ‘These mushrooms make delicious soups.’

Humungous fungus

One of the biggest living organisms on the planet is thought to be a fungus growing under one of America’s national parks, covering an astonishing 2,200 acres

Many mushrooms reproduce by releasing spores into the air. A giant puffball can contain around seven trillion

Not only do mushrooms taste good, but they are good for you. According to the Food Standards Agency, mushrooms count towards your five a day fruit and vegetable portions

They are low in calories, have no cholesterol and are virtually free of fatand salt, but don’t go picking them in the wild unless you are an expert.Some are deadly

Mushrooms have essential minerals like Selenium, which combine with Vitamin E to produce antioxidants

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