Thursday, March 10, 2011


Mushrooms are cherished for their delicate flavor and texture. They belong to the fungi group and grow wildly as well as are "farmed" under controlled conditions. One of the most difficult problems when wild mushrooms are picked for consumption is the existence of many varieties of poisonous mushrooms some of them can be fatal and unless good knowledge about them is available eating wild mushrooms is considered some what risky. Why do people take mushroom? Obviously because they cherish its value as a delicate food. Though it is not a source of energy, presence of nutrients like vitamins such as Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic acid and minerals including Selenium, Copper and Potassium does make it a health product also. U V irradiated mushroom products are positioned as special healthy food because of the production of Vitamin D2 from the natural ergosterol during U V treatment.

There are basically 3 broad groups of mushrooms which include Agaricus bisporus, Basidomycota and Agaricamycetes. All these are fleshy spore bearing fruiting bodies of the fungi typically produced above ground. Mushroom invariably means to an average consumer the most common button mushroom produced in farms all over the world under controlled conditions and available in the market as fresh and dehydrated products. Though mushroom is consumed fresh as well as in cooked format, major use is for garnishing meat and in preparations like curries and soups. Chinese population consumes enormous quantities of mushroom and that country accounts for half the world production. Its per capita annual consumption of mushroom is about 2.7 kg, the highest in the world. Imagine a huge population of 1.2 billion consuming mushroom at this level and how it can be met. Mushroom farms, small and big have fail-proof production technology that ensures large production with minimum safety problems.

It is unbelievable that people can go to any length to lay their hands on some varieties of mushroom irrespective of the price commanded by them. For example the Morel mushroom or the Morchella variety is much sought after because of its characteristic taste and fetches much higher price in the market compared to button mushroom. Since they grow wildly there is no control on its availability in abundance. Interestingly their production increases dramatically in forests where forest fires are controlled, though the reason is not known. As it contains small amounts of toxic substances belonging to Hydrazine group Morel mushroom must be treated with respect. While it should never be consumed raw, even cooked version must be consumed in moderation. It is unimaginable that people can take risks to their lives by hankering for Morchella at any cost!

Truffle is another variety that commands astronomical prices world over and is limited supply due to uncertainties associated with its natural growth. Also known as Prigord Truffles as this region ion France has been the foremost in producing this variety. It is unimaginable that Truffle, especially the black variety can command prices as high as $ 6000 a kg probably because of its restricted market availability. This mushroom botanically known as Tuber melanosporum, needs a host tree such as Oak, Birch, Poplar, hazel, Pine etc and grows under some favorable conditions attached to their roots. Though the peak production was achieved in the year 1900, due to many reasons currently the annual production does not exceed 50 tons, creating a scarcity condition that has propelled the price to astronomical levels. Coaxing truffle to grow is a challenge and even if some entrepreneurs have successfully accomplished this, the technology is one of the most well guarded industrial secrets of the modern world.

With all the technological advances made in biotechnological sciences, it is hard to believe that scientists have not succeeded in evolving a reliable technology. Probably keeping the demand-supply position in a skewed fashion can only maintain the high price commanded by truffle to day. Large scale production is being aggressively resisted because of the possibility of the market prices crashing due to over supply and lower cost of production. Genuine Truffle comes from France (45%), Spain (35%) and Italy (20%) though inferior quality Truffle is grown in many countries, China being in the forefront. Chinese, as is usual, produces two other varieties Tuber indicum and Tuber himalayensis and often these versions are palmed of as genuine Truffle. Even artificial Truffle flavor has been developed and olive oil based 2,4 dithiapentane solution is being used in food preparations to simulate the fresh earthy flavor scent.

Is this not a crazy world where people are willing to go to any extent to have a taste of the Truffle which is at best a "reluctant" fungus, unwilling to oblige its admirers? Its reputation to provide values such as the musky aroma and even aphrodisiac attributes has further enhanced the mystery that surrounds it. Is it not a stupid high risk investment for entrepreneurs who want to take up Truffle farming because of the uncertainties involved in getting assured returns? If the reports about Truffle farming are to be believed, saplings of some host trees, roots of which are inoculated with Truffle spores are available for starting Truffle farms and it may take 5-10 years to start yielding if successful. Though it is claimed that an earning of $ 45000 per acre is possible, the risks in the form of diseases, adverse weather conditions and many unexplained factors are considered very high. Whether farmed Truffle will be acceptable to the connoisseurs as compared to that recovered from wild with the help of sniffing dogs and hogs is another issue to be reckoned with. All said and done Truffle still remains a mystery and this factor has built an aura around it attracting renowned chefs and ardent consumers from around the world.


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