Hobby that mushroomed into a business
Simon Bourke visits local mushroom producer, Fancy Fungi, and discovers this foodstuff comes in many shapes, sizes and colours and requires a certain level of TLC
'It started as a hobby and it gradually developed into a business,' says Nikk George of Fancy Fungi, which has grown from humble beginnings to become Ireland's premier producer of gourmet mushrooms.
A family business, run by Nikk and wife Catherine, Fancy Fungi operates out of a handful of tunnels in Tanner Hill in Killinick, a packing room and a small office completing the scene.
Yet this scene has been created almost by accident, one man's passion, a niche hobby, establishing a business which has outlasted most, if not all, of its competitors.
The pair met in England, in Berkshire where Nikk is from, and eventually returned to Catherine's native Wexford, their original intention to start a business focusing on aromatherapy and physiotherapy, where both their backgrounds lie. And they did that - at least for a while.
But as someone who came from farming stock, someone who had grown up in the countryside, Catherine was simultaneously returning to her roots, dabbling in food production on her parents' farm.
'My parents were farmers and they had a lot of land so I took a small part and put in a little polytunnel. I used to grow herbs and I got this idea of bringing them in to the restaurants, into Liam Forde, or Cistín Eile, all those kind of places, and I ended up making a connection with them,' Catherine says.
Meanwhile Nikk was making connections of his own, enjoying life in his new homeplace and making some interesting discoveries as he explored his surroundings.
'We live in the country and Nikk started picking up all these mushrooms, foraging for mushrooms, picking up lovely chanterelles,' Catherine says. 'He brought them into Warren Gillen (head chef and owner of Cistín Eile), he had a jumper full of mushrooms and said, "What could you do with these?"'
What Warren could do was put them straight onto his menu, the chanterelle a delicacy available to very few local chefs. But how did Nikk know which mushrooms to bring to the restaurant, which were edible and which weren't?
'I'd done a lot of research. I was pretty confident in what I had. And I hadn't died from eating them,' he laughs.
Following this first successful transaction Nikk continued his research, working out how to grow his own mushrooms, how to cultivate them. He rented out half a tunnel, started growing a variety of different mushrooms, Grey and Golden Oysters, Pink Flamingos, Shiitake, but with mixed results.
'Some of it worked, some didn't,' he says. 'I've made huge amounts of mistakes, but that's how we built things, on mistakes.'
Complicating matters further was the capricious temperament of many members of the mushroom family. Both Nikk and Catherine admit that, even after 20 years in business and countless trips abroad to study other growing facilities, they are still at the mercy of the gods when it comes to their produce.
'You could have the same compost in each tunnel, and I guarantee you'd get 10 different results,' says Catherine. 'You could open the door in the morning and you don't know what you're going to see; there could be nothing or there could be loads.'
They must be doing something right though. Fancy Fungi is one of only three Irish mushroom producers in existence and by far the longest-running. And Nikk and Catherine say local support has been integral to their longevity.
Those early partnerships with local chefs and restaurateurs extended across the county and into Waterford. And although much of their produce is now sold in markets across Dublin, the business continues to receive the backing of those closest to home.
'What I love the most is the recognition from the restaurants,' says Catherine. 'If you go into the Ferrycarrig you'll see Fancy Fungi Mushroom Bruschetta, that kind of name-checking is great for producers. We have wonderful restaurants here, wonderful chefs, people who would pay extra rather than buy stuff in from Holland.'
That support extends to other food producers in the county, to the Wexford Food Family and its ever-increasing band of members.
'We became members of the Food Family eight years ago and there's an awful lot of collaboration,' says Catherine. 'Zanna Cookhouse produce a range of pies and quiches, and when they launched a new chicken and mushroom pie they used our mushrooms.'
But these partnerships extend beyond using one another's produce, there's a genuinely familial feel to these relationships, so much so that the county's food producers have a WhatsApp group in which they share advice and offer helpful industry tips.
'Last year our insurance was two-and-a-half times what it was the previous year, so I put a message into the WhatsApp group, got a recommendation and when I contacted the person they helped bring our insurance down,' Catherine says. 'Often (in the group), you'll have someone asking is anyone going to Gorey or Dublin that could bring something up. We all work it between us. It's great to have that.'
And when this 45-strong group (at the last count) go outside the county to represent Wexford at various awards ceremonies they always ensure to meet up, their respective successes shared and celebrated as one.
Such was the case at the recent Blas na hEireann awards in Dingle, an event which Catherine describes as the 'Food Oscars'.
A total of 14 Wexford food producers returned from Kerry with some sort of prize, Catherine and Nikk taking both a Bronze Medal and a Finalist award for their products.
This followed on from star-winning entries in the Great Taste Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2019, and Catherine says these prizes motivate them to improve even further, to create new products, diversify and expand their business into new avenues.
'We've got an Umami paste, a mushroom paté, pickle, a mushroom and tomato relish which were all produced using our mushrooms. We work closely with chefs David Goddard and Tim Phelan and make these in our own kitchens,' says Catherine.
'There's no place in Ireland that has these products apart from ourselves,' Catherine says.