Meet the Mushroom Man: the Leicestershire farmer whose fungi draws fans from far and wide

The rise in meat-free diets has led to a boom in demand for the meatiest of alternatives

Tim Livesey with shitake mushrooms grown at Livesey Brothers in Leicestershire
Tim Livesey at work in Leicestershire Credit:  Andrew Fox

Tim Livesey, Mushroom Man, knows how to sniff out a problem. Standing in one of his 50 sheds of unusual fungi, the farmer buried his nose in the miniature forest of shiitake, explaining: “A mushroom grower uses his nose all the time. You can smell issues as soon as you go into a growing room.”

He should know. It’s down to people like Livesey that our mushroom choices now range beyond white button, and encompass oyster, shimeji, enoki, maitake as well as shiitake. Mushroom sales are on the up, and in particular the “exotic” – or “woodland” as Livesey prefers to call them. “We’re in Leicestershire, it’s not exactly Thailand is it?” he told me when I visited the farm near Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Across the road is the Diamond Jubilee Wood, the heart of the National Forest, so it’s not as daft as it sounds, and all of Livesey’s mushrooms would, in nature, grow on trees rather than in the ground.

According to the Mushroom Bureau, sales of exotic mushrooms – as they are still known in the trade – increased by a third from 2018 to 2019, and Tesco is reporting a 240 per cent boost in sales of the likes of king oyster and brown oyster cluster mushrooms. Livesey, who pioneered large-scale oyster mushroom growing in the mid-Eighties, is more measured. “Sales are always up at this time of year. But yes, they are particularly good.”

The boom has been put down to the rise in interest in meat-free and vegan diets. It’s a relief to be reminded that meat alternatives aren’t only lab-grown burgers and heavily processed meat “analogues”. Mushrooms have always been the meatiest of fungus, with their chewy texture and savoury flavour. They aren’t just the darling of the vegan brigade either. Mushrooms find favour with environmentalists too. The Mushroom Miles campaign claims 75 per cent of our mushrooms are grown in Britain and Ireland, but that we could raise that to 100 per cent, as our temperate, damp climate makes them a year-round crop.

This goes for both for exotic and regular mushrooms, which make up the bulk of the £428 million we spend on mushrooms every year. The Livesey family business started with ordinary white cap mushrooms, the variety that gives us button, closed cup, flat and portobello mushrooms. When Tim Livesey’s father Tom set up a mushroom farm in 1960, mushrooms were all “flats”. Noticing the local Chinese restaurant owner would sift through the boxes looking for the mushrooms which still had the less mature closed cups, Livesey Sr offered to harvest early for him. Before long Chinese restaurant chefs were coming from around the country to buy from the Liveseys.

There's more to mushrooms than button and portobello... Credit:  Alamy Stock Photo

As for young Tim, “I grew up assuming I would go into the business,” he recalled. But when he left college in 1980, his dad had no desire to expand further, and subsidised Irish farms were threatening the 400 or so British operations. Livesey and his brother Simon were left to find work on their own. The spores not falling far from the mushroom, they hit upon growing oyster mushrooms, an almost unknown exotic, in a tiny former coal shed, using spores brought over from France.

A local chef, Bruce Sangster (who went on to win a Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant in Scotland) snapped up all the first batch, and then the local cheesemonger started taking boxes to chefs in London. Soon, the new Livesey’s was expanding, and by the time Tim’s sons William and Daniel were born, the third generation of mushroomers, they were moving to a much larger premises, and expanding into shiitake mushrooms.

Livesey’s are the only British company to produce their own mushroom growing blocks, from straw and sawdust, which they inculcate with imported spores. Now they produce 20 tons of five different kinds of mushroom a week in 50 sheds, warm damp tunnels, lined with shelves and misty with water sprays.

Solar panels are planned to provide heat and light – the woodland mushrooms can’t grow in the dark, unlike ordinary white mushrooms. Inside one of the sheds, shelves of blocks bloom triumphantly with yellow oyster mushrooms, which take 24 days from inoculation to cropping.

Each straw block has turned dusty white with the mycelium, the actual “plant” (tecnically not a plant but a fungi), whose “fruiting bodies” are the mushrooms. The sheds are carefully controlled with humidity and temperature, warm to fool the mycelium that it is summer, then slightly cooler to mimic autumn – which shocks the plant into producing mushrooms.

“Smell this,” said Livesey, yanking a handful of white powdered straw from a block. It is lemony, citrus smelling. Livesey nodded. “Pleurotus citrinopileatus. The grey oyster mushroom has a completely different texture and smell.” He’s right: the Pleurotus ostreatus is more earthy, classically mushroomy.

“Maitake are my favourite,” he added. “They are so meaty they smell like an Oxo cube.” Do you eat mushrooms? I asked William. “Every day. Twice a day. We try not to have them for every meal.”

In the last shed the maitake grow in exuberant frilled pom poms like Sixties ladies’ swimming caps. Even their botanical name, Grifola frondosa, sounds straight from Harry Potter. And they do, indeed, smell of Oxo cubes, gravy and a hint of soy sauce, which beats a lab-grown burger any day.

Livesey Mushrooms are available in Sainsburys, Morrisons, Asda and Waitrose, and by mail order from LiveseyBrosMushrooms.co.uk