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Enterprising couple just ‘bananas’ about growing artisan mushrooms

Much travelled husband and wife team Terry and Judit Vaz have recently moved their growing ‘urban farm’ to the ‘Banana Block’ in an old east Belfast spinning mill and have caught the attention of some of the city’s top chefs.

Terry and Judit are the entrepreneurs behind Hearty Growers, a mushroom farm in the sprawling former Strand linen mill building at Portview Trade Centre on the Newtownards Road, now a centre of enterprise which also features the popular Boundary Craft Brewery, highly regarded Root and Branch coffee roasters and café, and the innovative Neighbourfood collect service for artisan food and drink producers.

They have set up the farm as part of the ‘Banana Block’, a new living museum and events space in east Belfast designed to boost tourism in the area and restore a part of Belfast’s heritage that dates back more than 100 years.

They are in the part of the huge complex designated for burgeoning small businesses.

As far back as 1911, William Richardson, head gardener to former Lord Mayor of Belfast Sir Otto Jaffe, successfully cultivated ripe bananas in east Belfast.

Jaffe was also the owner of Strand Spinning Mill on the Newtownards Road, once the largest flax tow spinning mill in the world, and now better known as Portview Trade Centre – home of ‘Banana Block’.

‘Banana Block’ is the first step in transforming Portview into a tourism oasis and a unique hub for innovation, creativity and culture in the heart of east Belfast.

The Portview concept development, including ‘Banana Block’, is being taken forward by Belfast-based Urban Scale Interventions and a team of local and international consultants, including existing on-site tenants.

‘Banana Block’ has been supported by a development grant from Tourism Northern Ireland and a partnership with National Museums Northern Ireland, who have supported heritage interpretation and engagement.

“Portview has become a really creative hub of artisan food companies like Hearty Growers,” says Terry, 35, who is originally from Mumbai in India but also has family links with Portugal.

Wife Judit, also 35, was born in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. They have two young children, both born in Belfast, which is now their home.

The couple met when they were both doing voluntary work on a community development project at Shillong, a hill station in north east India.

The couple subsequently travelled to London to continue their studies in organisational management.

The enthusiastic travellers visited Belfast during the final stages of their studies … and “fell in love with the city”, according to Terry.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and everything changed. “It was an immensely worrying time for us and, of course, for everyone in Northern Ireland,” he continues.

Terry was furloughed for nine months from his role as a luxury cruise-holiday consultant. He turned to volunteering again and found an opportunity to help Biruk, an Ethiopian friend who manages Hahu Organics, an organic market garden at The Walled Garden, near Helen’s Bay. “I loved working at the Walled Garden,” he says.

“It was a tremendous experience being out in the open air again and helping to grow vegetables. I started learning loads of things about farming, from setting beds to composting, seeding, maintaining, then harvesting and boxing them and eventually selling at farmer markets once a week,” he adds.

While Terry had no farming experience, he proved to be a quick learner and soon picked up market gardening at Helen’s Bay, a supplier of fresh vegetables to local restaurants and cafes.

He began researching opportunities here for other home-grown products, especially oyster mushrooms.

He subsequently began growing the mushrooms at home, developing a mushroom farm in one of the spare rooms of their home!

“That was a bit of a challenge for the family,” he remembers.

It was redundancy in December 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that forced the couple to take a long hard look at their income options … and Hearty Growers was born. ​

“We saw the writing on the wall about a possible redundancy and had looked closely at the idea of the oyster mushroom business,” Terry explains.

“We developed a business plan and approached Belfast City Council. The council was extremely supportive.

“We then began to look for a suitable place to grow the mushrooms and found ideal space in the old spinning mill at Portview Trade Centre, an enterprise centre for smaller artisan businesses,” he adds

They signed a commercial lease with Portview Trade centre in January 2021… and Hearty Growers was up and running.

Gourmet oyster mushrooms are grown using hydroponic technology – crops are grown without soil in nutrient-rich water.

It proved successful for the enterprising duo.

​The small company now supplies greengrocers, butchers, and gourmet food retailers, especially in east Belfast.

Local restaurants are coming on board steadily, including celebrity chef Niall McKenna at Hadskis and James St South, and 44 Hill Street and quirky cafes like Freight Eastside Containers at Connswater Greenway and on the Lisburn Road.

Another chef now using the mushrooms is Carlos Capparelli, a recent new business start providing ready to cook gourmet dishes from his base in Dundonald.

Neighbourfood is also including the mushrooms in its hampers for collection.

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