A MUSHROOMING BUSINESS
When Dr Alisha Fuller-Armah explains that her home is off the beaten track, nine miles up a single-track road, followed by two and a half miles along an un-classified road in the wilderness of Southwest Scotland, she isn’t kidding. Deer Manor Mushrooms, an award-winning gourmet mushroom farm, is tucked away in the rugged wilds of Galloway. It is a well-hidden gem in Scotland’s blossoming fine food sector, supplying exquisite organic mushrooms to some of the country’s best restaurants, finest chefs, and specialist wholesalers. Founded by Alisha (38) only two years ago, the family-owned business provides what they describe as “earth friendly cap-to-stem superfood”, produced in the most exacting, sustainable, chemical-free, low-tech, and environmentally friendly processes.
Top chefs use Deer Manor’s mushrooms to create delicious soups, salads, main courses, and even sumptuous desserts. Mushrooms can be ordered in specially cultured batches, like the beautiful Lion’s Mane mushrooms that have a magnificent flavour reminiscent of tender lobster and aubergine, and a texture similar to juicy crab. Or the Freckled Chestnut mushrooms with their velvety-rich texture, and earthy-creamy, sweet-umami flavour that taste as delicious as they are beautiful. And the renowned Yellow Oyster mushrooms with their sweet and nutty, mellow fruity aroma and melt-in-the-mouth quality loved by chefs.
London-born Dr Alisha Fuller-Armah is a Cambridge graduate with a degree in art history and social anthropology. She obtained her PhD in business management in Switzerland. She opened a wedding venue in Jamaica where she found the demand for exotic mushrooms propelled her into studying the complex science of mushroom production and after ten years, she sold the wedding business and decided to return to the UK to concentrate on her new-found passion. A widespread search for a perfect rural location led her and her family to Deer Manor at Polbae, in the majestic Southern Uplands near Newton Stewart.
It was the ideal spot for her new business, with a sprawling mansion house that needed complete renovation and 15 acres of woodland, overlooking a tributary of the River Bladenoch. Alisha says that for her, southwest Scotland is one of the most naturally healthy larders on earth and an ideal location for her Deer Manor mushroom business, linking diet and nutrition with the beautiful surroundings. Encircled by moorland and forest rich with abundant wildlife, the area boasts black and red grouse, mountain hares, golden eagles, ospreys, hen harriers, red kites, red deer, roe deer, feral goats and even the occasional wild boar. Deer Manor is spectacular. The area lays claim to one fifth of the Scottish red squirrel population and the river is renowned for its brown trout and salmon. Alisha says that she and her family feel privileged to live in such fabulous surroundings “where nature reigns supreme”. She explains that the beautiful remote environs, where the air is fresh and pure and her mushrooms absorb nothing but the organic goodness that nature intended, make her doubly careful about the environmental impact of her business.
Using only a fraction of the energy, water and space compared to the production of other foodstuffs, her carbon dioxide footprint is small. “Mushroom farms are as good for the planet as for the body”, claims Alisha, adding “we grow gourmet mushrooms as much for their taste as the health benefits they provide”. Her sterile production methods are forensic in their meticulous application. She explains that organic mushrooms can be easily infected by alien spores, so staff and visitors have to observe stringent safety procedures. Feet are dipped and hands sprayed. Alisha shows how spores and mycelium harvested from the tastiest mushrooms are cultured for 3-6 weeks in a nutrient-rich, sterile broth. The broth is then mixed with steam-sterilised grain or wild bird seed and placed in warm, dark conditions for a further 5 to 8 weeks. The tented room has the yeasty aroma of a whisky distillery.
Next, the colonised grain is mixed with steam-sterilised organic Scottish wheat bran and virgin hardwood sawdust, then shaped into logs. These logs, in sterile conditions, are rested again in warm, dark conditions for up to 6 months, simulating the conditions experienced in the wild in summer. Finally, in a period that can vary from 1 to 12 weeks, the logs are shocked out of their slumber and placed in a windy, humid, and cold environment, simulating autumn conditions, and encouraging the mushrooms to fruit. The resulting gourmet crops are carefully harvested and packaged, ready for delivery and the culinary skills of a chef. Alisha explains that there are only around 30 commercial organic mushroom farms in the UK and only around 5 in Scotland. Her Deer Manor mushroom farm is a member of the soil association, observing its own stringent guidelines and is closely regulated by the council’s environmental services department. The business is also proudly progressing to being fully SALSA and B Corp certified. SALSA is a food-safety standard only granted to suppliers who are able to demonstrate to an auditor that they are able to produce safe and legal food and are committed to continually meeting the requirements of the SALSA standard. The B Corp certified brands are those seen to be doing good for the planet and its people.
Answering the sixty-million-dollar question, Alisha says that she has fallen in love with Scotland, where she finds the people friendly and helpful and the natural scenery spectacular. She has provided several local people with jobs, supporting the community by paying well over the minimum wage. She is empowering chefs, restaurants and businesses to “harness the profitability of gourmet mushrooms” by providing them with advice on menu development, culinary training and support. She is even keen to encourage children to love mushrooms, with a unique mushroom curriculum that highlights the all-natural, environmentally respectful processes that she employs at Deer Manor.
Alisha says that she believes that environmental stewardship and community benefit go hand-in-hand with growing delectable mushrooms for her customers, and Deer Manor Mushrooms, with their impressive displays, are now a familiar sight at farmers’ markets and agricultural shows in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. With her combined determination to succeed and polished business skills, her gourmet organic mushrooms will soon grace the menus of the best restaurants from Lands End to John O’Groats.