Wed, Jan 26, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Mushrooms a good pick for tourists

Nantou County mushroom growers have opened their farms to tourists who can learn about agriculture and experience delicious mushroom dishes

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Meals fit for a king featuring mushrooms, at Rich Year Farm.

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICH YEAR FARM

Along with high yields from their farms, Taiwan's mushroom growers are picking up ideas from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and have started to adapt their farms for recreational and educational purposes. Health and fun mingle together in rather ingenious getaways to Nantou County (南投縣), where winter is a perfect time to learn about the mushroom-growing process, experience mushroom picking and taste healthy gourmet dishes.

For years, major mushroom production has centered in Puli (埔里), Yuchih (魚池) and Kuoshing (國姓) townships in Nantou and Hsinshe (新社) in Taichung County (台中縣). Situated in the sub-tropics with only occasional snowfall on the highest mountains, Taiwanese mushroom farmers can grow several kinds of mushrooms for nearly the whole year. From March to October in particular, Taiwan's mushroom production abounds.

Because of cooler temperatures in winter, Taiwan's mushrooms grow more slowly at this time of year than in the summer and the cap, fruit of the plant, and stem mature, thicken, and give off a richer smell. As a result, mushroom quality can be at its best in the coldest months. The Chinese mushroom (香菇) in particular thrives during this time of year and is sometimes called winter mushroom (冬菇), an expensive, quality ingredient sought out by gourmet chefs.

But prior to 1909, mushrooms in Taiwan could only be found in the wild and were harvested by Aboriginals. Farmers in Puli revolutionized mushroom harvesting when they developed a way to grow mushrooms on oak logs, a means of production that continues today in Puli, Wushe (霧社) and Kuanhsi (關西).

Further strides were made in the early 1980s when Taiwanese farmers applied the latest bio-technology to mushroom cultivation. Long, tubular plastic bags filled with synthetic compost allowed for such great yields -- and harvests twice every three weeks -- that mushroom farmers were able to launch large-scale commercial production. Last year, production was estimated at more than 3,000 tonnes, worth almost NT$2.4 billion.

Cheng Wen-chian (鄭文乾) has been growing mushrooms at the Rich Year Farm (豐年農場) in Puli for more than thirty years and just began catering to tourism about a year ago. So far, on average, 900 visitors make their way to the farm each week.

Cheng explained the importance of the plastic bags aby saying, "The local farmers give this mushroom-growing plastic bag an affectionate name, the`outer-space bag' (太空包), in order perhaps to suggest its extreme usefulness for cultivation and production, even in future outer-space territories -- due to its compact size and impressive quantity and the quality of the harvesting mushrooms."

Cheng's three-hectare farm now produces 20,000 outer-space bags per day. The bags sell for less than NT$10 each and produce a wide variety of mushroom spawn (seeds) to meet local demand. He has more than 1 million bags to grow mushrooms in his mushroom houses, but such a great number of bags is common on farms in the Puli area, where outer-space bags are the preferred method of production. They involve a lot of work, but the high yield is worth the effort.

Each package weighs about 1.4kg and contains a mixture of fermented wood chips ground from broad-leafed trees, rice chaff, wheat bran, a small amount of lime powder and water. The bags must undergo a 980C steam sterilization for nine hours in an airtight room, before the then-sterilized bags are left in the open air to cool for another 12 hours.

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