Celebrity chefs championing exotic mushrooms increases demand

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Consumer demand for speciality mushrooms such as Shiitake and Oyster is increasing, partly fuelled by the activities of celebrity chefs. The Mushroom Bureau says “exotic mushrooms have seen steady growth over the past three years, and are growing faster than overall mushroom sales. Consumers in the 45-54 year old age group are the biggest purchasers of exotic mushrooms.” There is constant demand all year round, with a steep peak in demand between September and November. Although a small market compared to standard mushrooms, it is a sector that has considerable potential for growth. Produce Business UK investigates.

Tim Livesey of Livesey Bros says “We are definitely seeing more exotic mushrooms being used in restaurants and on menus, which encourages consumers to use them at home. The most popular is Shiitake as this has been around the longest and looks more like a familiar cup mushroom. They do find colours like pink and light yellow Oyster mushrooms a bit off-putting. The natural reaction is to associate red and yellow fungi with danger, so people are instantly nervous when they see pink and yellow mushrooms.”

“When we exhibit at mushroom shows consumers are surprised and ask if they can be eaten. The colours do look good in collections and add interest for decoration and garnish on a plate. Lighter colours tend to be more acceptable.”

Livesey says that although consumers are interested, they often ask “what do I do with them?” and need more information, ideas and recipes suggestions.

“The Mushroom Bureau is active in this by providing recipes. Mushrooms are healthy food products and good protein sources without any of the nasties.”

Mushrooms health credentials is one of the reasons consumers are expressing more interest, fuelled by celebrity chefs featuring exotic mushrooms like Shiitake, Oyster and Enoki in their dishes and TV shows.

In his latest Superfood Programme, Jamie Oliver travelled the world, including visiting Korea where he cooked Korean chicken hotpot with Shiitake mushrooms and referred to picking Shiitake mushrooms with a local resident in a UNESCO World Heritage Forest.  

Traditionally, such publicity normally causes problems for suppliers especially when they are unaware that such recommendations are about to be made. This has been experienced in many product sectors. Typical examples include a rush on a particular type of sea salt when mentioned by Delia Smith, demand for chestnut flour when used on Delia’s Classic Christmas. Sudden recommendations of this kind can cause havoc with production and distribution. Sales of soft prunes increased 106% year on year at Waitrose when she made a similar recommendation, and actually caused a rhubarb shortage in 2010.  Growers could not cope with the sudden demand.

“People are more willing to try different colours and textures of mushrooms these days. I think this is partly due to all the gastro programmes on TV. At the moment, Shiitake is the fastest growing. We can’t grow enough to keep up with demand. Mushroom kits are also becoming popular and we use the same substrate in the kits as we do in the tunnels,” Andy Evans from growers Smithy Mushrooms tells PBUK.

“It doesn’t help when Jamie Oliver goes off to Korea and shows off Shiitake mushrooms growing in Korea.  Consumers don’t realise that exotic mushrooms like these can be grown in the UK as well.”

“Chefs like Jamie Oliver could do more to help British growers and show that local produce is available. It causes an increase in produce being shipped in containers from across the world and these are not going to be as fresh as Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms grown in the UK.”  

“Cheap imports are taking up the sales. We need more investment, more marketing, our costs are high as this is a labour intensive industry, with minimum wages rising and there is zero government help. We need more input to drive sales of UK mushrooms and the long term distribution of UK produce,” adds Livesey.

Jack Ward of the Mushroom Growers’ Association echoes Livesey’s comments about cheap imports.  

“Mushrooms are difficult to grow, very labour intensive and are always subject to international competition. Shiitake mushroom production is even more involved than standard white or brown mushrooms. There are not a lot of growers in the UK and it is cheaper and easier for many to import from overseas.”

Although this situation is clearly creating potential long term opportunities for growers who can overcome the cost issues, it is not just the scale of demand that is causing problems. Livesey says that even the chefs need to be more accurate in what they are doing.

“Gourmet and celebrity chefs often give exotic mushrooms the wrong names. I have seen meals in restaurants where Shiitake mushrooms are mentioned, but on arrival, it is clear that cup mushrooms have been use. These are not the same thing. They need greater awareness and more education.”  

Exotic mushrooms are seen as premium product, attracting a higher price point than conventional button mushrooms. Unfamiliarity with the image of many exotic mushrooms can deter consumers who do not know how to use them. Chefs like Delia Smith often feature exotic mushrooms, particularly Shiitake, Portabella, and Oyster in recipes such as Chinese Stir-fried Chicken with Shiitake Mushrooms, Braised Steak in Madeira with five kinds of mushroom. These are recipes available from her website, and Online Cookery School which are followed avidly by the thousands of amateur cooks and fans.  

The Mushroom Bureau has worked with a range of personalities including Nadia Sawalha, Masterchef winner and cookery book writer, and the Just Add Mushrooms website offers advice on exotic varieties aiming to educate consumers on using mushrooms. The website also features recipes using exotic mushrooms showing how they can be used in a variety of meals.


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