Farmer looks to a tastier future with exotic flavours from Far East

Interview 29-11-18 SM Farm

Part-time farmer Jem-my McCann has come up with a new flavour from Asia that’s ideal for Christmas dinner and other meals throughout the year. A carpenter by trade, Jemmy recently launched the

first shiitake mushrooms to be grown on the island of Ireland.

He knows, however, that it will be some time before he’s able to put away his saw and chisel and focus entirely on the mushrooms.

Jemmy’s been harvesting the first crops of the mushrooms nurtured on the family farm near Jonesborough in County Armagh and has won acclaim from local chefs and delis for his enterprise and the outstanding taste of the fabulous Asian fungi he’s bringing to Ireland. He’s currently hoping to find a wholesaler to handle distribution of his mushrooms across the island.

Thirty-year-old Jemmy has grown up with mushrooms and knows quite a bit about the many varieties. They are in his blood. He helped parents, Kevin and Majella, who have been growing white button mushrooms for the past three decades, before opting for carpentry.

Tight margins in the mushroom business meant he had to look for an alternative career. While he gained carpentry skills and works in construction, he’s still maintained his interest in the family business.

“I decided to look at other opportunities because marg-ins in the white mushroom business are very tight. It requires big volumes to generate a reasonable income from what is essentially a commodity product that’s not really valued in terms of prices shoppers are prepared to pay. I knew there wasn’t any real future for me growing white button mushrooms,” Jemmy says.

“I trained as a carpenter and found it a skilled trade that’s in great demand. I’ve always enjoyed working with wood,” he continued.

“But I was still involved in the family farm and looked around to see if there were other opportunities from a higher value product that could be grown here and could generate a greater return,” he adds.

“I had been growing trad-

itional Irish white mushrooms with my parents and dev-eloped an interest in shiitake. When my parents decided to stop growing mushrooms about three years ago, I decide to explore other mushrooms, especially shiitake.

“I wondered if shiitake could be a mushroom which could be grown here and command a premium, especially from high-end restaurants and hotels.

“I was also conscious of market trends towards diets based on plants, particularly as a route to better gut health and the effects on mood and general wellbeing,” he explains.

He discovered that the Asian mushrooms attracted a premium because of their very rich flavour and firm texture: “And desk research indicated that they have nutritional and health benefits. Renowned for their rich texture and smoky flavour, shiitake mushrooms have been used in Japanese medicine for centuries.

“They are packed with

vitamins, minerals, antioxid-ants and are rich source of copper, pantothenic acid and selenium,” Jemmy continues.

He began researching shi-itake about two years ago to find out if the unique mushroom could be grown in Armagh’s damp and cloudy climate. They are usually grown on the decaying wood of deciduous trees, chestnut, oak, beech and poplar.

Some research suggests that compounds in the mushroom may help fight cancer, boost immunity and support heart health.

His extensive research found reports that shiitake mushrooms contain strong compounds to counter inflam-

mation, so-called “bad” bac-teria and harmful viruses. Essential B vitamins, such as B2, B5 and B6, are part of the package, providing energy by breaking down fats, carbs, and proteins.

“I found out as much as I could from the internet and other sources. There was no-one growing shiitake in Ireland. So, I thought there might be an opportunity for such a richly flavoured, healthy and especially such a premium mushroom.”

Translated from Japanese, “shii” refers to the tree on which the mushrooms originally grew, while “také” simply means mushroom. While the distinctive mush-

rooms are generally ass-ociated with Japanese cuis-ine, China today yields around 80 per cent of the world market. Shiitakes are also being grown in the US and parts of Europe.

The part-time farmer began

growing a first batch of shiitake back in March in a polytunnel on the family farm. He nurtured the plants in the evenings and at weekends. “It really is a labour of love,” he continues, “and a tremendous act of faith.” It’s an act of faith that has proved justified.

The first shiitake harvest in Armagh was in August. He spent the growing period developing a business plan and an identity for the mushrooms, choosing Ard Mhacha (Armagh) Shiitake Mushrooms as the obvious brand for the new product and began approaching

chefs and some retailers in the area and just over the border.

What do the Ard Mhacha shiitake mushrooms taste like? “The shiitakes I have produced have a distinctively deep woody taste,” he says. “White mushrooms have been grown here successfully for generations,” he continues. “But shiitake is a completely different type of fungus that can only be grown here in a polytunnel and cultivated with great care.”

The Armagh shiitake mush-rooms are nurtured using water only and without any chemicals. “While I haven’t yet achieved organic accreditation, I am using organic techniques to grow the mushrooms. I don’t use any chemicals whatsoever in growing them,” he adds.

“Feedback about the mush-

rooms has been extremely positive from initial cust-omers. This has encouraged me to press ahead to increase production and expand sales to existing and potential customers here and in the Republic of Ireland,” he says.

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