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  • Writer's pictureBart Acres

Species Spotlight: Tawaka Mushrooms

Tawaka mushrooms are one of the fungal jewels in the crown of the New Zealand bush. Not only are they a mushroom with excellent flavour and nutrition, they also look absolutely stunning, growing in clusters of fruitbodies which have smooth, umbrella shaped caps with a velvety sheen to them. Tawaka can be found in the wild in many parts of Aotearoa, and they can also be cultivated at home with relative ease. Here we will discuss all things 'Tawaka' and explore some facts about this wonderful mushroom.

Common name(s): Tawaka, sometimes called Poplar Mushroom

Scientific name: Cyclocybe parasitica

Bio-geographical status: Indigenous to New Zealand and southern Australia.

Taxonomical Notes: Tawaka are closely related to a popular northern hemisphere mushroom, the Pioppino (Cyclocybe aegerita) which are a prized gourmet mushroom in Europe and North America. While pioppino can not be cultivated in New Zealand for biosecurity reasons, we are lucky to have our own, unique, and arguably tastier native version right here in Aotearoa!

Habitat and Distribution: Tawaka are a 'wood loving' mushroom and are found growing on logs, branches and trunks of both dead and living trees. They will commonly be found on larger specimens of native trees like mahoe, lacebark, ribbonwood, tawa and kanuka, as well as exotic trees like poplar and willow. The mushrooms will often fruit from a nook or crevice in a tree or where a branch has previously come off and left a ring shaped scar. They can fruit at any height in a tree so when hunting for tawaka it pays to remember to look up as well as down! They can be found throughout the country.

Season: Tawaka generally enjoy mild to warm, and humid conditions. They are most abundant during the summer months from November through to March, but can also be found outside of these times during warm, wet spells.

The same cluster of tawaka photographed one day apart, showing the veil drop

Identification Features: Tawaka are characterised by their large umbrella shaped tawny brown caps which can often look quite similar to a hamburger bun (without sesame seeds). The younger caps can have a slight velvety sheen to them if they are undamaged and have not been exposed to heavy rain. They have a dense, fibrous white stem which sometimes has lines of small darker speckles on it.

The other key identification feature of tawaka is the veil, which is a protective membrane that covers the gills when the mushrooms are young, and drops away when the mushrooms start to mature and the caps open up. The spores of the mushroom are a chocolate brown colour, and can sometimes be seen on the stem, the top side of the fallen veil, and on the caps of mushrooms that are underneath other ones in a cluster. Tawaka commonly grow in clusters of multiple mushrooms but can also be found singularly.

Their aroma is a mild, fresh, earthy and fungal.

Uses: Tawaka are a culinary mushroom which is reported to have been used as a food source by Māori for several centuries. They remain a popular culinary mushroom to this day, with many foragers seeking them out in the wild, as well as being cultivated by many hobby mushroom growers around the country. In recent years several specialist gourmet mushroom farms have started to cultivate these to supply farmers markets and high-end restaurants.

The flavour of tawaka is a pleasant, lightly savoury mushroom flavour with slight nutty undertones. They have a robust texture which holds up well to cooking. The stems of larger specimens can be considered 'stringy' by some people, although in the hands of a skilled chef this texture can be utilised in creative ways. They are versatile mushrooms which can be cooked in a range of ways and many consider them to be the 'portobello of the woods'. They can be sauteed, stir fried, grilled, used in pasta, pizza, risotto or any other dish where portobello or button mushrooms may be used. Some people have also been known to mince Tawaka mushrooms and use them to make vegetarian sausages or burger patties, which are very tasty!

Nutrition: Tawaka have been valued as a nutritious food for centuries. They are low in fat, high in protein and fibre, and are rich in vitamins and trace minerals including potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, niacin, B6, ergothioneine, and various phytosterols. They contain a range of unique compounds which posses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Tawaka mushrooms are thought to also aid in digestive health by functioning as a prebiotic, and assist in regulating healthy blood sugar levels.

Cultivating Tawaka Mushrooms: Tawaka can be cultivated by two primary methods. They can be grown indoors on compressed blocks of sawdust-based substrate inoculated with grain spawn, or outdoors on logs which are inoculated with live Tawaka dowel spawn.

Tawaka mushrooms grown indoors on a sawdust based substrate, just after the veils have broken

Both methods work well to obtain good crops of fresh delicious Tawaka mushrooms. The indoor method can yield a harvest sooner, within about one month, but it is more complex, labour intensive and requires more equipment. Growing outdoors on logs is a very easy and natural method which can be done with just a few basic materials - fresh cut logs, some culture dowels, and a drill to drill holes in the logs to tap the dowels into. From there, the log can be kept in a sheltered, damp spot in the garden and will begin producing crops of mushrooms after a year or so, and continue to produce for several years after that.

The mushrooms are usually harvested around the time that the veil drops or just before, for optimal flavour and texture. Also in the case of indoor cultivation, they can start to release lots of spores after this point which can become messy in the grow space.

Our grow guides have plenty of detailed information about both of these methods. You can check out the sections growing on sawdust blocks for the indoor method and growing on logs for the outdoor method. If you prefer printed material, copies of 'Growing Gourmet Mushrooms at Home: An Introductory Guide' by MycoLogic founder Bart Acres are available right here on our website.

Cooking with Tawaka Mushrooms: I have met many seasoned mushroom aficionados who declare Tawaka to be their favourite mushroom for eating, so this mushroom is no slouch in terms of its culinary credentials. Tawaka not only boast a delicious savoury mushroom flavour, they also have a robust texture which holds up very well to cooking.

To put it simply, Tawaka can be cooked in many of the same ways that one might cook Portobello mushrooms. As a rule of thumb, they should be cooked for a good amount of time, not just flash fried, to allow for the texture to soften and for some golden brown colour to develop around the edges which brings out more flavour. The stems of tawaka have a distinctly fibrous texture which gets more pronounced in older mushrooms - some people do not like this and others love it. Adventurous chefs have been known to utilise tawaka stems in creative ways to create a realistic 'chicken-like' texture which can also be 'pulled'.

Most times when tawaka is used in recipes the process will start by sautéing the mushrooms (with caps sliced, halved or whole) on their own first. This should be done in a skillet on medium-high heat, with a small amount of oil or butter and a pinch or two of salt sprinkled on the mushrooms to help them sweat out moisture. A splash or two of wine, or even water, can be added part way through the cooking process after the moisture from the mushrooms has evaporated off, if the pan starts to become dry. Garlic, herbs, and more butter / olive oil (for flavour) can be added near the end of the cooking process to avoid them burning. When the mushrooms have a golden brown colouring to the edges and smell delicious, the sauté process is complete.

Sautéed tawaka can be enjoyed on their own, on toast, or used as an ingredient in other dishes. Tawaka are a wonderful mushroom to use on pizza, in pasta, soups and stews, gravies, pies and bakes / lasagnes.

On a few occasions I've also used minced fresh tawaka as an ingredient in vegetarian sausages or burger patties, which work fantastically. The texture of tawaka really can provide a realistic meat substitute. Minced fresh tawaka can also be mixed with meat to add flavour and nutrition to traditional burger patties or sausages.

Overall, Tawaka is a very versatile mushroom to cook with, and its uses are only limited by your own creativity. If you have a favourite way to cook these mushrooms, contact us and let us know, perhaps we can add it to this page!

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