Nobody knows exactly why the hilltop area around the southern Victorian locality of Caveat has the potential to become Australia’s new gourmet mushroom mecca.
The elevated altitude means the air is fresh and the breeze blowing up the valley is certainly essential to the vitality of the oyster mushrooms that Samantha Davey is cultivating on her micro-farm, located roughly half way between Seymour and Lake Eildon.
The water is highly prized – drawn from an underground reservoir where it is filtered gradually through granite. Pure and mineralised, Sam applies exactly the right quantity of water each day (too little and the mushrooms expire, too much and they become soggy).
The mix of organic cane mulch that she hangs in bags from a web of climbing ropes in her mushroom production shed gives the highly prized fungus a sweet, subtle flavour.
The temperature is not artificially controlled – with delicate pink and yellow varieties grown in Summer and blue and white grown in the cooler months.
But ever since she converted a one-of-a-kind car shed into her Mushroom Shack of Joy three years ago, Sam has been amazed at how much she has learned – and how much there is yet to know.
“They say that because this is a lightning ridge, where lightning strikes often during storms, it induces better conditions for growing,” Sam says.
“It’s hard to know exactly the reasons, but Caveat happens to be a really extraordinary environment to grow mushrooms.”
The analysis of key success factors ignores the tenacity and continuous approach to learning that Sam has applied, starting from scratch to now be an expert mushroom producer.
She had grown up in Moorooduc on the Mornington Peninsula on a small farm, loving the freedom and her parent’s enterprising approach to life.
“My parents were very practical. Business is really very simple, you’ve got your costs, the price you get for your produce and your profit or your loss, that’s all you have to work out,” Sam says.
She had lost the passion for her nursing career after spending 18 months caring for her father as he died from cancer, not long after her mum was also lost to the disease. The extended period of illness took away not only her parents, but also the family farm.
With meagre resources, a then 12 year-old and a six month old in tow, Sam resolved to create a new country life, giving her children the time and freedom that she had enjoyed in her childhood. She had never been to Caveat, but the house, thick with mould on every wall after being shuttered for four years, was sold for a song – together with seven acres, which included the small shed that was destined to become the Mushroom Shack of Joy.
“I thought if I scrub and scrub at the walls, get rid of the junk inside and keep all the bits that work, I could make the house into a home and save a lot of money,” Sam said.
“It was like a house of horrors. I spent four months scrubbing things down, while we still lived in Melbourne, but after commuting up here for weekends, I just realised it was only going to work if I lived here full time.
“A previous owner had raised five children here and she even sewed her own doonas from goose feathers she collected in the yard. I thought why would anyone bother doing that, but then after a winter here, when the snow fell multiple times, I realised why.”
With house renovation underway, Sam was in search of a way to spend more time with the kids and support them while living 25 minutes from the nearest town and started by planting five inoculated truffle trees. Then she learned that it would be 5-10 years before they started becoming productive and she came across the idea of growing mushrooms.
“I love to cook and had seen how valuable high quality mushrooms could be, but I’d never been able to grow anything; I even managed to kill a cactus before I moved here,” Sam says.
“When I do something, though I don’t do it by halves and I set about learning all I could from whoever I could.
“When I lived down close to Melbourne I was surrounded by people but I didn’t know anyone. Here, there’s only 10 people who live anywhere nearby but I know them all well, and have much closer relationships with people.
“Norma next door has been growing tomatoes and all sorts of herbs and vegetables for 40 years, and she is just like the grandma that everyone wishes they had.
“I have learned so much from her, and then talked to stew, who has farmed here for years and Judy over the road, who has an orchard. I have learned so much aand then experimented. Through trial and error and then Googling things when I couldn’t work it out any other way, I’ve learned a lot.”
Sam has learned so much that she is growing 50-100 bags of mushrooms each quarter, and is finding strong demand from some of the State’s top chefs, when they hear about her produce. She has created a business in a rural area from scratch, and earning a deserved reputation for her mushroom farming skills.
“I could produce three times the quantity, but I don’t want to. If I did that I would have less time to spend looking at each bag, making sure the water is exactly right, and picking them at the right time,” Sam says.
“I’m all about producing the highest quality of mushrooms available, using what turns out to be the best possible conditions for growing these beautiful tree mushrooms here.
“Once they are ready to pick, you have about four days to twist them off, advertise that you have them and then transport them to where they need to go – driving very carefully because they are so delicate.
“I’m hoping to open a farm gate soon, because what we have seen around here is that people will travel for miles to get some really great food. And besides, it’s a really beautiful drive, you don’t even have to like mushrooms that much and it’s worth it!”
For more information and to find out when Sam’s next batch is ready, visit the farmgate at between 9am and 1pm on Saturdays at 12 Moores Rd, Caveat. Alternatively, call Mushroom Headquarters on 0474 303 233 and follow Caveat Mushrooms on Instagram @caveatmushrooms