Mushroom season is well upon us, and people are out across Ireland foraging for everything from the field mushrooms we all know to chanterelles to ceps and puffballs to pig nuts.
More consumers have developed a taste for the deep flavours of wild and cultivated mushrooms. Culinary, frugal, vegetarian and microbiologically-aware trends have brought forest and field fungi to prominence.As a result, there has been the emergence of new food businesses which seem to want to remain small but beautiful.
Many of these businesses performed well at the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards, or the Irish Food Writers Guild awards.
Into this scene step an entrepreneurial husband and wife team who are, as they call it, “practising dark arts of growing 10 types of speciality mushrooms”.
Moreover, Lucy Deegan and Mark Cribbin add foraged mushrooms and other wild plants, as well as their own speciality mushroom-based foods to their array of products for the public.
Winners of both aforementioned awards – Blas in 2012, and Food Writers this year — Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms are certainly on the crest of a wave. But it’s a wave they want to surf steadily.
I’m a food scientist whileLucy moved from Scotland to do a PhD in Applied Microbiology in anti-microbial peptides in UCC.That’s our backgrounds. So she was a real scientist while effectively I was a bucket scientist! Lucy, new to Cork, was shocked at the quality of available mushrooms, there was hardly anything other than white cap mushrooms for sale, even in the supposedly best of markets. So she started growing on hobby kits at home in Doneraile in north Cork. We were also picking wild mushrooms in the wood surrounding us. This continued for about seven years. In the meantime, Lucy was constantly researching processes. We also made the acquaintance of Jim and Fran Fraser who had run a similar business before retiring in the 2000s. Their advice? “You wouldn’t want to do that, Lucy”. They were right, it is a labour-intensive business, and also the smallest problem in the humidification process, with temperature fluctuation, can cause you to lose a week or more production in a few hours. Similar businesses in Wales and Scotland were visited to try and gain some understanding of operations and processes involved – there was little help in Ireland from Teagasc at the time.
We took the plunge in 2011. Now we do three markets a week, Midleton, Mahon Point and Coal Quay. We deliver directly to 30 restaurants in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Kildare, Dublin, and hope to add another 10 outlets, mostly over the Shannon, soon. It’s just the two of us involved, we’ve no employees and don’t deal with wholesalers.
Certainly, I would question time versus income, no doubt about it; however, as in setting up any new enterprise, your time is free, and it’s the only thing that is. And in the initial set up what you put in is what you get out. So 60 to 68-hour work weeks are not unusual, and it’s work every day, you are dealing with a live biological process, so you don’t have the luxury of days off. We took a week of in January this year, our first break since 2011. We certainly don’t see ourselves as two hippies in the mountains growing mushrooms, which is the perception some people can have. People are generally astounded when they hear our backgrounds. There is no course material, case studies or advisors that you can call on. We have basically written the book from scratch on growing 10 types of mushrooms, the knowledge built up is invaluable, and it is something you can only obtain by trial and error, to get to that magical point of the theoretical yield of Grade A product. At this stage in evolution of the business we hope that this will allow us achieve a sustainable income. We have hopefully now passed through the valley of darkness of any new enterprise when outgoings exceed whatever incoming payments there are. So at this stage, it’s a case of demand exceeding supply, our managing of that demand, and who we want to do business with. It might seem a strange approach, but we have actually stopped supplying restaurants that we believe didn’t appreciate, value or use our products correctly.