Barka, in recent years, has enjoyed the reputation as a fast developing industrial area peppered with lush farmhouses that can be rented on weekends. What escaped the attention of many people, however, is that it has silently earned for itself the title of “Oman’s Mushroom Capital.”
Here, everyday, from the ordinary looking gated property of Gulf Mushroom Products Company SAOG, a public joint stock company established in 1997, about 3500 tonnes of mushrooms are harvested on a daily basis — about 10 percent of which are delivered to local stores, malls and fresh produce outlets while the rest are loaded to airconditioned trucks for delivery in different parts of the GCC and ultimately, the world.
It is hard to imagine that mushrooms are growing in Barka by the millions. Coming in different shapes, sizes, and colours, the Gulf Mushroom farm focuses on five popular yet special varieties — the baby mushroom that is earthy tasting with mild flavour that gets stronger when cooked, the white button mushroom which is very popular in the Gulf Region and usually have a woodsy flavour and used in soups and salad, the giant mushroom — the larger relative of the button mushroom usually given few weeks to achieve maturity, the brown mushroom that is usually firmer and darker in tone than its relatives, and the Portabello mushroom, said to be the most imposing out of all varieties in Oman because of its large size and usually has rich and meaty flavour when cooked.
On the outside, the establishment looks like a regular warehouse you can find near seaports. But the inside actually hold many secrets. It is the largest hi-tech mushroom farm in the Middle East and has been equipped with the state-of-the-art Dutch technology.
Upon entering into one of the temperature-controlled rooms, the smell is the first thing one would notice.
The compost used as the food of the fungi are created and prepared by the company itself in one of their off-city establishments — a necessity because when produced in huge quantity, the compost gives off very stinky smell not suitable in residential areas.
The company employs over 150 staff to run the whole operation. Everything is managed in-house, from the composting down to the harvesting and distribution.
Staff is required to wear company-mandated uniforms to guarantee the highest quality of production. The HACCP Certificate issued by TUV SUD, Germany is a confirmation that the company has established and is applying an internationally recognized food safety management system (HACCP) for the production of mushroom.
In 2018, Gulf Mushroom sales spiked to RO 3.797 million, an 18 percent increase than the previous year. Its gross profit of RO1.800 million is 51 percent higher if the June 2017 and 2018 data are to be compared.
“Oman is yet to fully embrace the mushroom culture though,” Ibrahim al Wahaibi, one of the executives said.
He explained that there is still a need to educate many of the Omanis regarding the health benefit of mushrooms and how it’s a good alternative to many of the meat products in the market today.
Mushrooms have historically been much sought after as health and medicinal food. They are low in calories, contain no cholesterol and almost no fat, sugar and salt and are a rich source of proteins, vitamins (B1, B2, C, D), minerals (phosphates and potassium). Many mushrooms have been known to contain therapeutic properties including bioactive substances like beta-glucans, which have been shown to be immune system modulating.
Mushrooms are also incredibly versatile. You can prepare them in so many ways and pair them with tons of different ingredients. Slice them up raw and toss them in a salad. You can also grill them, sauté them, or roast them. You can even add them to soups, sandwiches, wraps, casseroles, and they are also popular additives to Italian dishes.
For some vegetarians, mushrooms work well as side dishes and they are slowly making their way to becoming part of the main courses. The Portobello mushrooms are often served as “burgers” or “steaks” because of their meaty texture.
Watching the mushrooms grow in their temperature-controlled environment is on its own, a definite awe. The fungi are given enough heat, light, and cold temperature so that they mature and grow properly. The long stretch of layered vertical gardens will remind one of an alien planet and in the darkness, it is jaw-dropping to realise that such delicious food can grow and thrive in the most challenging of situation.
While visiting the farm requires special permission because of the sensitivity of the processes, it is definitely worth to see how the whole operation comes together.
In the next few months or years, if there is something that the city of Barka should embrace and do right, it is to rightfully call itself as the ‘City of Mushrooms’ — something that the whole country can be truly proud of and celebrate as no other country in the region has a large mushroom operation as that found in Barka.
Next time you are visiting the grocery section and notice the “Gulf Fresh” label, do know that you are purchasing a true Omani product.
YERU EBUEN & TITASH CHAKRABORTY