Saving the world… one mushroom at a time

With animal agriculture blamed for 91% of rainforest destruction, former farmer Mike Botha is introducing everyone – omnivores and veggies/vegans alike – to the joys of mushroom alternatives. Here’s more…

Years of experience farming mushrooms in South Africa taught Mike Botha the nutritional benefits of his crop, and set him thinking about uses for the stalks, which are often thrown away.

Fast forward a few years and he now has a thriving business in Darlington making delicious meat-free products from those very stalks – he thinks the only business of its kind in the world. He co-founded Hooba Foods last June, looking for the best use for oyster mushrooms’ big, woody stems, which are free of fat, gluten and cholesterol, and full of protein and fibre. “The stalks are much cheaper than mushroom caps, and in South Africa the Zulus refer to them as meat, because they are so full of protein. They don’t discriminate between it and animal produce,” he says.

“We started off making sausage rolls, which look and taste exactly like a meat one. In fact, we also make sausages with a skin, like a meat version.”

Here at appetite HQ, we can vouch for the quality and flavour of these products, loved by veggie/vegan and omnivorous team mates alike. In addition to the sausages, Hooba also makes great burgers, mince, mushroom wellington and ‘turkey’ crowns. Mike, however, has one challenge – what he calls the ‘holy grail’ of his product innovation – meat-free pepperoni and bacon. “When I have worked out how to make them I have cracked the most difficult product I can think of,”
he says.

Hooba products are timely as public interest in healthy eating and the vast environmental destruction caused by meat production grows. Its customers include Durham and Newcastle universities and the company is in discussion with major food suppliers. The business partners have also set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) to help disadvantaged people to learn new skills while contributing to the business by growing mushrooms.

“They collect waste coffee grounds from coffee shops which, mixed with cardboard, makes perfect growing material for mushrooms,” says Mike. “By encouraging them to go into coffee shops to collect the grounds, they have to talk about healthy eating and our product. They learn how to represent a business and develop professional connections. This, in turn, gives them confidence and the skills to find permanent jobs.”

The project has support from Jamie Sadler, whose social enterprise Food Nation emphasises healthy cooking and eating, while the project is also making use of disused urban spaces with the support of Virgin Trains, which is allowing the CIC to use vacant premises in Orchard Street, Newcastle for mushroom
poly tunnels.

Mike says: “Animal agriculture consumes one third of all the planet’s fresh water, 45% of the Earth’s land is used for farm animal grazing and 91% of rainforest destruction is due to clearance for grazing and
growing crops for animal feed. Reducing meat consumption is not only good for us, it’s good for the planet too.”

And where did the business name come from? Hooba (or ‘huba’) means ‘mushroom’ in Slovakian. Don’t say we never tell you anything…

Spaghetti with Hooba balls

Hooba ‘chorizo’ sausage with cannellini bean sauce

Chili non carne

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