Jamaica Exotic Mushrooms

I love mushrooms. I can eat them raw, sauteed in butter by themselves, cooked up with bacon, perched atop a thin crust veggie pizza (yum!), paired with tender chicken in a creamy sauce…you get the picture. Typically, mushrooms in Jamaica are premium offerings, imported and resold at high prices in the more upscale supermarkets. But in the early ’90s, there was a local project that saw oyster mushrooms produced by small farmers in rural Jamaica available on supermarket shelves. They were different from the typical button and portabella mushrooms that I was familiar with, but they were half the price and they were fresh and I lived for the times when they made their appearance. I can’t recall the details on the project that brought this exotic food local. It could have been RADA or JADF (Think inland shrimp farming, ornamental fish rearing, bee keeping,small farmer orchid production in Yallahs, cassava and tobacco farming, greenhouse agriculture…some of the more well known agriculture based projects that were initiated with the aim of transforming lives & communities. Too bad scaling up seems to elude us. I stand to be corrected). They soon ceased to be available, much to my dismay. There’s that scaling up issue again.

Over the years I have mourned their absence until a few weeks ago when I stumbled across an article in the local papers signalling a new project and the availability of locally produced oyster mushrooms again! Oh happy day! I immediately went to the Facebook page indicated in the article and enquired. Production was happening in Manchester. Were they available in Kingston? Where? How much? I eventually got a response stating that deliveries were going to be made in Kingston on Nov 16, please place orders at a specific email address. So I did. The minimum order would be a half pound at J$2500.00. More later on the pricing.

 On Thursday I got an email indicating the approximate time of delivery and in the afternoon, the front desk at my office called me advising me of a delivery for me. I rushed out and was greeted by an elegant woman, with a slightly foreign accent, with 2 boxes and 2 jars for me. She introduced herself as Pauline Smith with a firm handshake, instructed me to immediately place the still warm and oh so beautiful mushrooms in cool storage, uncovered!, she was careful to admonish. She also said that as a first time customer I was getting two new products to try on one condition, that I give her feedback. The jars were labelled as mushrooms in bamboo vinegar. I was intrigued.

Look at that! Fresh and beautiful. One half pound of pale creamy and delicate salmon coloured mushrooms
Same label, but two different products I think. One had smaller bits with a firmer texture, and one had larger softer pieces.

I asked her to tell me more about this project. She explained that she was part of a cooperative aimed at empowering women and attacking rural poverty. She explained how they had worked to demystify mushroom cultivation and evolve a system where it become a plug and play endeavor. They had developed starter kits, very little land space was required, and that value added products was seen as the real value added side of this industry. Oh wow! I was intrigued. I love food. I love food innovation. And woman empowerment was simply the icing on the cake. Absolutely.

Pauline gave me more strict instructions on how to use the jarred products. “The mushrooms are a great meat substitute” she advised. “Simple use a little virgin coconut oil or sesame oil, sautee the product straight from the jar and then add a little of the vinegar it’s preserved in at the end.” “Oooh” I rejoined. “So it’s like an escoveitch then” I asked excitedly? “Not really…” she replied. “It’s more like a…like a…” she searched. “Like Thai food!” I jumped in as a light bulb went off. “That’s it exactly!” she agreed. I knew that I was in the presence of real foodie. Hey, Sis ๐Ÿ™‚

I put my treasures in my igloo that I keep under my desk (don’t ask…I do, and it has come in handy on multiple occasions) and on cloud nine, I went home that evening my head swimming with all the ways I was going to enjoy my mushrooms.

On Friday evening I decided to have a light supper of lettuce roll ups. I put slices of ham and chicken processed slices in lettuce leaves, added cream cheese, olives, onions, pepper sauce and some of the mushroom pieces pickled in the bamboo vinegar and rolled them up. Delicious! These mushroom pieces were crisp and slightly sweet and went well with the other ingredients in my roll ups.

On Saturday morning I tried the preserved mushrooms in exactly the way she advised. I used sesame oil. The end result was a meaty, slightly sweet perfect side accompaniment to my bacon and hard-boiled egg breakfast. I imagined that it would also be perfect in a 100% veggie stir-fry creation that included baby corn, onions, sweet peppers and broccoli. Yum! My family concurred. Definitely a winner.

Oyster mushrooms picked in bamboo vinegar, sauteed in sesame oil, a little of the bamboo vinegar added at the end.

Don’t mind the shape of my eggs. It’s magic! The mushrooms were a delicious part of my breakfast.

For dinner, I decided to make chicken and mushroom in a cream sauce. Perfection! These oyster mushrooms have a meaty texture and they were so fresh and unblemished and unbruised (is that even a word?) unlike the imported options we have that have been cold storage for sooooo long and are soooooo far away from their origins. The end result was a delicious, easy to make meal that we all enjoyed.

I sauteed the cut up mushrooms with onions in my wok.

After stir-frying boneless, skinless chicken thighs, I added the sauteed mushrooms and onions. Fresh ginger, loads of fresh garlic, heavy cream, a dash of freshly grated nutmeg and fresh parsley brought it all together.

I served the chicken and mushrooms with a garden salad, and stir fried chayote and zucchini. All locally grown.

I did a little digging of my own. I visited Pauline’s Facebook page (she accepted my friend request), I visited her cooperative’s website and I read two Gleaner articles on her movement here and here. What I came away with is this: Pauline and her team have a vision. A great vision, that, if realised in full, will see women with an option for economic independence, a new healthy addition to our food options locally, an opportunity for exciting new food innovations with mushrooms as the base, and hopefully an abundance of fresh mushrooms at a reasonable price in supermarkets, so I can enjoy one of my favourite foods with ease. Like so many similar projects, this one seems to have had its problems: in-fighting, funding, support, etc. But they’re still going. Pauline has had her own health challenges, but she’s still going. And they’re working hard to spread the message. At a recent event at Devon House, they were fully present, selling “grow-kits” to allow people to grow their own mushrooms in their kitchen! I’d love to try that.  

Now, I work in the food industry…commercial manufacturing and distribution. So I always think commercial viability of any food innovation. Was the J$2,500.00 value for money? Perhaps…these are organic, fresh offerings delivered to my door. I haven’t done the gram for gram comparison with the imported  options. And maybe I shouldn’t. But premium-offerings consumers are a niche market, and there is still a mass market out there who think out-of-pocket-spend instead of premium-and-healthy and may be put off by such a huge outlay. The mushroom project will ultimately choose their target demographic and proceed accordingly. I wish them every single success. 

I have another tray of fresh mushrooms left and I am conspiring to sautee them with garlic and veggies and enjoy. By myself. No easy feat in house of foodies. Selfish? Yes. Without apology ๐Ÿ™‚ #causeImworthit.

…about Good Jamaicans!

I  had intended this post to be about the future of Agriculture in Jamaica.  You see, last week Wednesday my brother and his family and me and mine made a 2 vehicle trek to Malvern, St. Elizabeth to visit my friend and colleague Kingsley.  Kingsley has been a farmer for decades and in recent times, Kingsley has added to his agricultural endeavours in a really high-tech way.  You see, Kingsley now cultivates crops in what we (ahem!) agriculturists refer to as a “controlled environment”.  You all (ahem again!) would be familiar with the term “greenhouse agriculture”.  Simply put, growing crops under cover allows you to control variables such as water and wind, offers a more suitable environment for controlling pests and diseases and allows you to also optimise plant nutrition.  Sure there’s a high initial outlay (relative to growing in the open field), and you have to use specific seed varieties and monitoring becomes a necessary science.  But the results when you do get it right, is a higher yield per unit area, more predictable yields and improved quality.  You can now operate your farm more like a factory floor, predicting and guaranteeing output.  So yes, this was initially meant to be an expose on agriculture in Jamaica.  But the more I reviewed our excursion, I became convinced that this was more about the soul of the farmer than his activities. What he has accomplished is more about him, than it is about the science and discipline of agriculture.  Come with me…

So we set out from Kingston at 8:00am.  Every time I drive out of Kingston I am impressed by awed by just how beautiful our island is.  Uneventful is how I would describe the drive over.  The view of the St. Elizabeth plains when you are descending Spur Tree took on renewed significance, as I said to my children: “We are most definitely heading straight into the heart of the bread-basket of Jamaica!”.

View of Jamaica’s breadbasket from Spur Tree

Me being me, I asked for directions 3 different times once we made that left turn at the foot of Spur Tree.  I could just see my brother rolling his eyes in exasperation, since I was the so-called expedition leader.  Whatever.  I am “directionally challenged” and lose my sense of direction at the drop of a hat!  

Three hours later we arrived at Kingsley’s house.  By this time we were joined with another of Kingsley’s friends from Kingston, Pat.  He has a massive greenhouse in the front of his property.  No…don’t look for an actual greenhouse. It’s really a metal frame overlaid with a combination of plastic and mesh, designed to allow for appropriate ventilation and light and for the exclusion of insects. In the event of a hurricane warning, it’s apparently quite simple to remove the coverings and lower the plants.  The frame should be still be standing after the storm.

The White Greenhouse

Seedlings are planted in to pre-prepared bags of coir which are set up prior to planting, with drip irrigation lines appropriately placed.  The fertilizer is mixed into tanks with the irrigation water and applied at pre-set intervals throughout the day.  The net result is no water wastage and giving the plans exactly what they need in terms of food.  Kingsley’s set-up  is well equipped with an automatic timer and pH and electrolyte meter to ensure that the water is of the right pH to allow for effective delivery of the nutrients.  Farmers in this neck of the woods rely on rainfall for irrigation.  Kingsley has added gutters to his house and his greenhouse to ensure that not one drop goes to waste.  The water is stored in a combination of black plastic tanks and a pond that he excavated and lined.

The kids (and adults too!) had a great time harvesting the most beautiful tomatoes you’ve ever seen from Kingsley’s greenhouse.

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

The sweetest cherry tomatoes in the world!

Some crops are also grown under a less strict regime: tunnel houses.  The sides and front and back are open in this method.  But drip irrigation/fertigation and covering on top, still afford some measure of control.

Cabbage in the tunnel

Tunnel House

 Kingsley still plants in the open field too!

Irish Potato field

Little Master pulling carrots from the field.
Miss World with her just pulled carrots!

We ate pumpkin bread and drank carrot juice made by Kingsley himself! That is another blog post.

Apart from being totally impressed with Kingsley’s efforts and his fantastic results, I left feeling that Kingsley represents all that is good about Jamaica and Jamaicans.  He has carefully planned and invested.  He has done his sums and the result is a thriving business utilizing the best of Jamaica: soil, climate and people, producing in  a sustainable manner, produce that is wholesome.  Kingsley is one of the hardest working people I know and his sons see this and emulate him.  All is not lost in Jamaica Land we Love. What a great day!  

Kelly and Kingsley
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