The unstoppable march of mushrooms will remake our world

Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake Mushrooms

What do Beatrix Potter and Jeremy Clarkson have in common? Both are susceptible to the charm of pigs – Potter’s Tale of Pigling Bland describes an intrepid young piglet’s escape from slaughter, a fate that Clarkson’s Oxford Sandy & Blacks do not avoid.

The unlikely pair are also united by their interest in mushrooms. The latest series of Clarkson’s Farm finds Jeremy diversifying into mushroom cultivation, with a cave-like growing bunker that looks like the set for a scary early episode of Doctor Who.

Potter became fascinated by fungi during family holidays in the Lake District and made more than 250 meticulous scientific studies. In 1897, her paper, On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, was presented to the Linnean Society by a (male) mycologist from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (as a woman, she was ineligible to attend).

More than a century later, the work of Victorian mycologists is providing research material for a team of mostly female scientists at Kew’s fungarium. Founded in 1879, it is the largest, and one of the oldest, such collections in the world. The team will sequence the DNA of its specimens with a view to unlocking their untapped potential – medical, pharmaceutical, industrial and culinary.

In his remarkable book on fungi, Entangled Life (2020), the biologist Merlin Sheldrake writes, “Fungi provide the key to understanding the planet on which we live… Yet more than 90 per cent of their [estimated 2.5 million] species remain undocumented.”

Sheldrake found fungi already being put to work to produce products of the future – from artificial skin to building materials, furniture and clothing – while the maze-solving ability of mycelial networks is used in the design of urban transport networks and fire evacuation routes.

And if anyone should doubt the inexorable march towards global domination of fungi, a novel tarragon oyster mushroom has made the prestigious plant of the year shortlist at this week’s RHS Chelsea Flower show – although strictly speaking, it isn’t a plant.

More to pubs than beer

Ben Cheshire, the landlord of The Coronation pub in Bristol, has had a wizard wheeze: rather than his customers thronging the bar in a doomed attempt to catch the bartender’s eye, they can order their drinks via smartphone, and pay up to 50p less. He reckons the digital service should be more efficient, less stressful for his staff, and ideal for the younger crowd who make up his post-lockdown clientele.

“I’m a big advocate for European-style service,” says Cheshire. In the 2016 referendum, Bristol generally supported Remain, but the Europhile tendencies of Bristolians seem not to include remote payment: so far, 90 per cent of The Coronation’s customers prefer to pay at the bar.

Which brings us to the essential point of going out to the pub: it’s not the drink – you can get that more cheaply at home. It’s the craic – which begins and ends with a chat with a sympathetic bar person.

Branching out

Jacqueline Davies of Faversham, Kent, writes to The Telegraph wondering why there is an olive oil shortage when her two olive trees regularly produce a heavy crop. I, too, have a whopping, home-grown olive tree, annually laden with fruit.
The extreme weather that has caused the shortage of European olive oil is a disaster, for sure. But when Kentish vineyards are producing award-winning wine, it may be time to plant some Kentish olive groves.