We spoke to Jemmy McCann of Ard Mhacha Mushrooms who is growing the first shiitake mushrooms in Northern Ireland. Shiitake mushrooms are prized in Asia for their flavour and health properties (their flavour profile becomes more pronounced as they age in or out of your fridge). They are temperamental to grow and you need both experience and patience, qualities that Jemmy and his father Kevin, who has been growing mushrooms for decades, have in droves.
What made you decide to grow mushrooms, especially shiitake which are a bit different from the button mushroom we see in the supermarkets?
My mother and father grew white mushrooms on this farm for 28 years up until early 2016. It was a four house unit and was the ideal size in the ’90s as a family run unit. A lot of growers left the industry in the late ’90s, early naughties. The majority of those left expanded and became more efficient by making big investments using modern Dutch shelving, that gives you multi-tier growing. We kept things small here and using family labour and a lot of hard work carried out by my parents we were able to keep things going for a few more years. The farm was too small to support me and my parents together, so in 2015 I left for London and returned back to my trade as a joiner. In 2016 margins got so tight on our small farm that the decision was made to stop production. It was while I was in London that I saw exotic mushrooms in supermarkets and restaurants. I spoke to a few chefs and that’s when I became very interested in them. I started doing research and, when you are in your flat in London, you have plenty of time to think. I really liked the look of shiitake mushrooms. I saw how popular they were in other countries and I questioned why do we not see them more often in Ireland.
How long is the business running?
We started the shiitake growing process in March of this year but plans have been ongoing for the past three years.
Is there anyone else working in the business with you?
Myself and my father Kevin are working at the mushrooms.
Where do you see your customers coming from and who are your customers now?
I am still quite a small shiitake mushroom grower in the grand scheme of things. At the moment I have a small number of customers. They include restaurants, shops, wholesale marketers and the public coming to my farm. There has been plenty of interest shown from all over Ireland and the UK. Going on social media has definitely helped getting my name and product out there and it has been great so far. In the future I hope to expand and would like to see myself exporting Irish shiitake mushrooms to the UK and beyond but that’s a long way off at the moment. In Ireland we have a great name worldwide for great clean food and we need to push it to its maximum.
Do you grow the mushrooms in daylight or an artificial light – is there a difference in the final product?
I use artificial lighting for a few hours every day. I believe I am in better control inside than being exposed to the outside elements. If there wasn’t any lighting the mushrooms would be distorted and I found this out the hard way.
How long does it take to grow a shiitake? What are the biggest hurdles
It’s a very slow process and you need loads of patience when you compare them to ordinary white mushrooms which have only a 6-week cycle. Shiitake mushroom-growing is a six month process if I am lucky! Shiitakes are temperamental and can let you down after all the hard work is done. Using organic growing methods, moulds can set in and attack the growing mycelium. This means those bags have to be taken out of the process and sometimes a whole batch can get infected. This can be a very frustrating and costly when this happens after many months in the process.
How long do shiitake mushrooms last when you take them home?
I find my shiitake can last up to 2 weeks and possibly longer in the fridge. To be honest I think the older the mushroom is I find it tastes better.
How to clean and store shiitake mushrooms (or any mushroom)
‘If you buy shiitake mushrooms and are cooking them, I would use a dry brush to remove any debris’, says Jemmy. ‘You do see people using water but I believe water should never be used to clean mushrooms. Remove the plastic cover to let them breathe. Place a small piece of cardboard over the punnet and let it sit a week or even more in or out of the fridge. The cardboard helps keep the moisture in the mushroom.’ This is advice that can be used to care for any mushroom you buy.
I know of some medicinal purposes that shiitake have been used for through research but that wasn’t the driving force behind my idea. A Chinese man close to my mother’s family was given a sample when he heard about us growing shiitake. He wanted to see the mushroom process and that’s when he told myself and my father the medicinal properties of shiitake mushrooms. He said that in Chinese medicine they are used to lower cholesterol, strengthen the immune system, maintain healthy blood pressure and circulation and they contain high levels of vitamin D. Obviously people can do their own research.
How do you cook them and what’s your favourite way to eat them in your house?
Picking the mushrooms fresh and eating one or two baby shiitake raw is top class. I believe the taste of my mushrooms are something else and it lingers on the palate for up to 30 minutes afterwards. When I cook them I cut each one into four, and fry them on a hot pan with olive oil and butter. I keep the heat on high for about 5-7 minutes. Just before I finish I add a splash of lemon juice and let it burn off. Let them cool a little. I could eat a plate of them. Putting them in beside a steak and onions are another fantastic way to do them.
They have a really strong and uniquely deep woody taste. It’s really hard to explain but if you are into mushrooms I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Did you get any funding for the business?
I haven’t received any funding or help from anyone yet. I am still working on the whole process and using my own finances, but hopefully when I crack it then I am on the lookout. Down the line if I was looking to talk to anyone it probably would be Enterprise Ireland. I spoke to a few food and drink exhibitors at the Taste of Cavan a few weeks back and Enterprise Ireland was mentioned on numerous occasions as being really good with start-ups.
Will you branch out and grow any other kinds of mushrooms?
I don’t grow any other variety of mushrooms at the minute and I want to concentrate solely on growing shiitake. Nothing else is grown commercially here as it can get quite busy as these shiitakes, they take up a lot of time!
I sell mushrooms to customers both sides of the border. They include restaurants, wholesalers, shops and the public who come to the farm. I haven’t set up anything yet for online sales but we will be looking at that. At the moment people can contact me on Twitter under @Mhacha_Shiitake. I want to build up production first before I push for any more customers. I want to be able to supply customers consistently and not to be hit and miss. This will keep everyone happy!
What would you do differently if you were starting the business again? Have you any advice for other small artisan producers starting out?
Do loads and loads of research on the product you plan to work at. My father and I spent three years researching before we put it into practice. Start small and keep a tight eye on costs because at the end of the day that’s what will break you.
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Centre photograph of Jemmy McCann ©Sally Lennon Photography – Sals Photart