It's oddly shaped, shrivelled, beige and odourless until cooked. Quorn, the edible fungus loved by vegetarians but likened by foodies to cardboard, has become the unlikely hero of the meat-free world.
Dismissed by the uninitiated as a poor (some would say inedible) meat substitute, Quorn is the leading brand in the UK's £582 million vegetarian market, according to The Grocer, with sales of £75 million. The first mycoprotein-containing pie was test-marketed by Sainsbury's in 1985, and the Quorn brand name was launched the following year by its creator, Marlow Foods, now owned by Montagu Private Equity. Available in chilled and frozen 'formats', the fungus comes shaped as deli slices, sausages, nuggets, ribsters and Swedish-style meatballs - it would seem no meat is safe from its Fusarium venenatum doppelganger. Quorn has its roots in the 1960s, when social scientists, preoccupied by a predicted rise in the world's population, declared a protein famine on the horizon.
The quest for a new source of nourishment was on, and movie mogul and humanitarian J Arthur Rank stepped in, funding research that found non-animal protein to be the most efficient to produce. In 1967, a suitable fungus was found in a field in Marlow, four miles from Lord Rank's research centre in Buckinghamshire. More than two decades of tests later, the food was deemed to be fit for human consumption and the vegetarian revolution was under way.