Words: Jocelyn Doyle // Image: http://cuttopieces.blogspot.ie/
Mushrooms are one of the best things about autumn. The woods start to smell deeply, darkly earthy, and the most beautifully-weird mushrooms start to spring up all over the place. This year, we’ve had such a mild season that the mushroom crop was enormous; one particularly adventurous lad even shot up in my front garden, fighting his way through layers of gravel.
Luckily for city-dwellers, mushroom season is no longer confined to the countryside. Dublin’s very own Urban Farm has been perched on top of the Chocolate Factory over on William Street since 2012; run by Andrew Douglas, this venture is designed to prove that growing your own vegetables is still possible in an urban setting. The previously-empty space has been transformed into a positive and productive environment, an inspiration to anyone thinking about getting into the grow-your-own movement.
In between all of his funky Farm projects (growing 160 varieties of spuds for Gallaghers Boxty House, for example, or running his state-of-the-art aquaponics system) Douglas has managed to find time to set up Mushroom City, aimed at combating food waste. As he says, it makes perfect sense to grown mushrooms in the city. Over 2,000 kilos of used coffee grounds from nearby cafés have been collected and used to create “Mini Oyster Farms.” Each of these is an ingenius little cardboard box filled with the equivalent of 100 shots of espresso, along with the spores from oyster mushrooms, turning a waste product into food. Douglas came across this idea when researching “food from waste initiatives”; the practice of growing mushrooms in coffee pulp waste is widely utilised by poor rural farmers across Africa & Columbia as a source of extra income.
“In Ireland, spent coffee grounds are sent to already over-full landfill, where they decompose releasing harmful methane gases into our environment,” explains Douglas. “By using this potential pollutant as a substrate for mushroom growing, we are essentially absorbing all the otherwise environmentally-harmful elements with our mushrooms, and producing gourmet food.” With so many species of mushroom out there, Douglas selected the oysters especially because they’re the easiest and fastest to grow; anyone can do it, and with these pre-inoculated grow-at-home kits there are only 6-14 days before the first harvest. “They taste great too.”
I wonder whether the coffee grounds have any effect on the flavour of the mushrooms, like a mini-terroir, but Douglas is quick to quash my caffeine-addicted wishful thinking. “The mushrooms absorb the mineral elements of the coffee grounds, so unfortunately they do not take a flavour from the grounds. That’s kind of like asking whether your spuds taste of muck. And there’s no caffeine kick either, sorry!” (Damn.)
So is this a temporary project for the Urban Farm, or is it here to stay? “Mushroom City is a permanent feature, definitely. It just makes too much sense for it not to be.” Douglas is also hopeful that his Urban Farm can become a permanent fixture in the city. I’ve heard recent whisperings along the grapevine that the Chocolate Factory is in danger of closing, and ask whether this is a worry. “The Chocolate Factory is not going to close,” Douglas insists. “It’s an awfully big, iconic building and it takes time to create a community and shape a future. Slowly but surely it’s getting there. The community of artists in the building are working together to build the life force of the Chocolate Factory… there are a lot of really great people in there, working noon till night to make it all a better experience. It makes me proud to be part of such a strong collective.”
Douglas seems to be a man with a plan, always looking forward – so what’s in store for his Urban Farm? Well, for a start, there’ll be a restaurant open on the ground floor of the Chocolate Factory in early 2014. “All the food grown on the roof will service it, and in return all the waste from the restaurant will be composted on the roof to produce soil, to grow more food to be consumed down the stairs.” This zero-kilometre, minimum-waste approach to catering is so clever, and so necessary; it’s what we should all be working towards in our food systems.
At the moment the Urban Farm is seeking new premises in Dublin: “a ground floor situation where we can open our own café and have facilities to grow our mushrooms, and farm our fish and salad greens in our aquaponic systems: a place of learning and education. The Chocolate Factory is a great building, but Urban Farm needs to expand, and 2014 will be the year it really takes shape.” Douglas won’t be stopping there, either. “Imagine an Urban Farm in most cities In Ireland, utilising local waste to produce local food, inspiring and instigating food enterprise on a whole new, local level.” Like I said, a man with a plan.
With Douglas’ innovative approach to urban food systems, I’m dying to know what the next project for Urban Farm will be. “Cricket Crackers! I’m serious, we are going to farm crickets,” he tells me. The plan is to harvest them, hydrate them, turn them into a flour, and produce Cricket Crackers: a “physiologically-friendly, protein rich insect snack food.” I’ve long argued that it’s time Western culture wrapped its head around eating insects, as they’re the biggest untapped food resource in the world, so I’m thrilled that someone is finally taking the first step. (Douglas even shared his “favourite recipe” for cricket flour.)
In the meantime, the Mini Oyster Farms each come with a set of instructions on how best to grow your mushrooms, and each one will provide two or three harvests. Once all your mushrooms have been eaten, you’ll be left with a nutrient-rich coffee and mycelium cake that makes for a great soil enhancer in your own garden or plant pots; the Farms even come with a packet of seeds for you to plant in the coffee grounds, so that you can grow your own herbs and keep the cycle going. I reckon they’ll make wonderfully weird Christmas presents for the food nerds in my life. If you need some inspiration as to what to use your oyster mushrooms for once they sprout, check out the recipe below for my oozy, cheesy mushroom risotto.
- Olive oil
- 15g dried cep (porcini) mushrooms
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, picked
- 300g arborio rice
- 1 small glass of white wine
- 1 chicken (or veggie) stock cube
- 500g of mixed fresh mushrooms, including your oyster mushrooms
- 40g Parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 inch-wide cubes of butter, cold from the fridge
- Half a lemon
- A handful of parsley (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Now do this:
- Put your dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over some boiling water until they’re just covered. Leave them to wallow there for half an hour or so.
- Glug some olive oil into a saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Stir while it cooks.
- Finely chop the rosemary leaves and add to the pan, along with the rice. Stir it for a minute or so, and then add the wine. Stir until the wine has been absorbed. Crack in a good load of black pepper.
- Use your stock cube to make 500ml of hot stock. Pour about a fifth of this into the pan, and stir the rice until all the liquid has been absorbed.
- Drain off the liquid from your dried mushrooms, and add this liquid to your pan. Keep stirring until all the liquid has been absorbed.
- Continue to add your stock bit by bit, and make sure you keep stirring: your spoon is essentially massaging the starch out of the rice, and is crucial for getting your risotto to the right texture. You’l need to keep going with this for about 20 minutes.
- Rinse your fresh mushrooms and tear them into the risotto. Squeeze in the juice from the half lemon. Check the seasoning; you shouldn’t need too much salt because of all the stock.
- When the mushrooms have cooked, throw in your cold cubes of butter. Use your wooden spoon to beat the cold butter into the risotto. Add in most of the Parmesan and stir through.
- Serve the risotto in nice big bowls, with some extra Parmesan (and some parsley, if you fancy it) sprinkled over the top.