Monday 22 December 2014

Pitch: Magic mountains where gourmet mushrooms grow

Why to invest in Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

A TASTE FOR BUSINESS: ‘All going well, we might have truffles within the next two years,’ says the co-founder of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms Mark Cribben. ‘That’d be the pension fund.’ Photo: Tony Gavin
A TASTE FOR BUSINESS: ‘All going well, we might have truffles within the next two years,’ says the co-founder of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms Mark Cribben. ‘That’d be the pension fund.’ Photo: Tony Gavin

The top of a mountain isn't the easiest place to live, particularly when snow falls.

However, it's the ideal place to grow mushrooms so it's no surprise that Mark Cribben, co-founder of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms, decided to make such a place his home.

In 2011, Mr Cribben and his wife, Lucy Deegan, moved from Doneraile in Cork to the top of a mountain just outside Mitchelstown. "When you're growing speciality mushrooms, you're looking for specific temperature and humidity," said Mr Cribben. "The advantage of living up a mountain is that because you're up so high, the wind lowers the temperature even when it gets hot."

Although Mr Cribben and his wife officially set up Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms in 2011, they have been growing mushrooms since 2003.

Lucy, who is from Scotland, had been taken aback by the lack of wild mushrooms in Ireland when she first moved here, and so she started growing and picking her own.

"At the time, the only wild mushrooms available were imports coming in from France and so on," said Mr Cribben. "So the mushrooms were between five and seven days old. They were very tired."

Lucy started growing mushrooms at their then Doneraile home. "We lived in a stone cottage at the time, which had damp conditions - this was ideal for growing mushrooms," said Mr Cribben.

There were also woods nearby their home in Doneraile. "Anytime you'd have a lot of wild mushrooms in the woods, we'd pick them too."

Although the couple initially ate the mushrooms themselves, they also sold them to organic shops and restaurants. "Lucy ruminated about setting up the business for about seven years and we eventually decided to do so in 2011," said Mr Cribben.

The couple grow and sell ten different types of speciality mushrooms, including shiitake, oyster and nameko mushrooms. So what makes their mushrooms stand out from others?

"Our mushrooms have totally different flavours and textures and that 's what people are looking for," explained Mr Cribben.

"If you take the majority of mushrooms that are imported, the quality of them is poor after travelling for five to seven days. So there really is no comparison with our mushrooms. Elderly people buy our mushrooms. People undergoing chemo also buy them. A lot of our mushrooms have specific medicinal properties."

As well as selling in farmer's markets, the company supplies small cafes and restaurants, including Michelin star restaurants like Chapter One and L'Ecrivain in Dublin. In Cork, it supplies Sage restaurant in Midleton as well as the well-known vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Paradiso.

All of the company's mushrooms are grown on wood - and chefs prefer this, according to Mr Cribben.

"Shiitake mushrooms are grown on oak and you can't grow them on anyting else," explained Mr Cribben. "Oyster mushrooms are grown on birch. You can grow oyster mushrooms on straw but it's not the optimum place for them. Chefs know the difference between oyster mushrooms grown on straw and those grown on wood."

As well as growing and supplying mushrooms, the company makes a range of products using its own mushrooms, such as mushroom pates, soups, oils and ketchup. These products are sold directly to restaurants and in farmer's markets. "We also sell to a couple of small retailers in Cork," said Mr Cribben.

And what about the larger supermarkets - does the company have any ambitions to supply the multiples?

"The answer is probably no," said Mr Cribben. "We'd get lost if we went into the multiples. Everything we produce, we have touched. Our mushrooms haven't come out of factories. We don't believe that multiples would give value for the effort put into producing our mushrooms. You become a commodity product if you go down that route. It's not who we are."

Mr Cribben believes the company has developed a niche product and has tapped into a niche market - and that it is this, rather than any major contract with a multiple, which is its key to survival.

It looks like Mr Cribben is right to stick to his guns on this one.

"For the chefs that we supply, it's local food that they're looking for," said Mr Cribben. "These chefs know us and they know where we are. We have never contacted anyone looking for business. Every customer we have has either found us or has been referred by other chefs."

The company has clearly grown over the last three years. It produced about half a tonne of mushrooms in its first year.

"We'll probably produce ten tonnes of mushrooms this year - and we'll sell all of these," said Mr Cribben.

Despite the couple's success, they don't have any farming background. Mr Cribben, who is originally from Skerries in Dublin, is a qualified food scientist and his wife studied microbiology.

"We've absolutely no farming background whatsoever and we've had absolutely no help from enterprise boards," said Mr Cribben. "We're just very much interested in mushrooms and foraging."

This interest in foraging has clearly been invaluable to them. "We sold morels this year," said Mr Cribben.

"No-one believed morels grew in Ireland. We pick the morels in the woods."

The company is currently cultivating truffles, a delicacy often referred to as the diamond of the kitchen. "All being well, we might have truffles within the next two years," said Mr Cribben. "That will be the pension fund."

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