Urban farming: Parisians wake up to coffee-fueled mushroom magic

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UpCycle-La boite à champignons, based in the Paris suburb of Saint-Nom-la-Breteche, recycles coffee grounds to produce oyster mushrooms. (AFP)
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The deeply rooted Parisian coffee culture means there is no shortage of the stuff — the city annually produces around 600,000 tons of grounds. (AFP)
Updated 24 February 2019

Urban farming: Parisians wake up to coffee-fueled mushroom magic

  • ‘Thirty percent of urban waste is useful biowaste and today, only five percent of this organic matter is recycled’
  • ‘Paris mushrooms’ were born from the idea of recycling organic matter

PARIS: From a container wafts the sweetly pungent odor of coffee grounds which, far from being discarded as waste, are being lucratively recycled to produce oyster mushrooms.
Grounds, which Parisian brasseries throw out daily by the ton, are perfect for the job, and a snapshot of a fast-growing urban agricultural trend.
The mulch of grounds is mixed with cardboard and wood chips and shoved into lengths of plastic with pieces of mushroom culture.
They are then hung vertically in a dark space and left to incubate for a fortnight.
“We are reproducing undergrowth subsoil conditions. The temperature and humidity are comparable,” explains Arnaud Ulrich, co-founder of UpCycle-La boite à champignons (mushroom box), based in the Paris suburb of Saint-Nom-la-Breteche.
Nestled away from the light, the spores of mushroom mycelium fungus — a key food source for many soil invertebrates and which can also help to clean polluted soil — rapidly spread as they would beneath the roots of a tree.
After incubation, the bags containing the grounds and spores, by now completely white, are transferred to a different room for “fructification.”
There, the lights are switched on and humidity reduced. Cuts are made in the bags, allowing the mushrooms to emerge.
“The mushrooms are ‘stressed’ — which makes them want to reproduce and free up their spores, leave the bags,” says Ulrich. “It simply remains to harvest them.”
Ulrich says urban agriculture is first and foremost about recycling organic waste from cities as a means of expanding the move toward a regenerative, ‘circular economy’ making more judicious use of finite resources.
“Thirty percent of urban waste is useful biowaste and today, only five percent of this organic matter is recycled,” he notes.
“We are just doing what they did in the 19th Century, but with modern methods,” he said.
At that time, “Paris mushrooms” were also born from the idea of recycling organic matter.
Market gardeners cultivated their produce in quarries on the perimeter of the capital making use of the droppings of the thousands of horses who helped to deliver vegetables to the market at Les Halles in central Paris.
Today, some 20 tons of coffee grounds are collected each month in and around Paris, the bulk from large firms’ restaurants in the west of the city. From that can be produced around two tons of oyster mushrooms.
At €15 ($17) per kilo that equates to a €30,000 ‘harvest’ and a campaign is under way to encourage more Parisian cafes to get in on the act.
“It’s a virtuous undertaking — we are producing between 20 and 30 kilos of grounds a week,” says Romain Vidal, 30 and the owner of Le Sully brasserie in Paris and a pioneer of the recycling technique.
“And our chef puts the oyster mushrooms on the menu for the brasserie’s customers,” he adds.
The chef concurs, saying he is “delighted,” describing the mushrooms as thick and juicy.
After every expresso, every cappuccino, Le Sully’s waiters bag the used grounds which a delivery biker from the coffee company whisks away so further use can be made of them.
Paris’s deep-rooted cafe culture means there is no shortage of the stuff — the city annually produces around 600,000 tons of grounds, according to UpCycle, which is helping manage similar projects in several other French towns.
After harvesting, the already recycled grounds embark upon their third lifespan, returning to the ground as compost — or ‘champost’, a play on words with champignon, French for mushroom — mixed in with mushroom strands and wood cellulose.
With their system up and running, Ulrich and co are branching out by installing “Rocket” compost machines in the heart of Paris’ La Defense business center.
The machines swallow up organic waste from restaurants such as peelings and leftover food waste, be it meat or fish, as well as grass cuttings.
The resulting scrunched up waste produces compost in record time ... which in turn will be utilized to spawn more Parisian mushrooms from September.


Highway-side eatery in UAE feeds hungry one meal at a time

Updated 19 November 2020

Highway-side eatery in UAE feeds hungry one meal at a time

  • The cooks collect leftover food and repurpose it into free, hot meals for underpaid or out-of-work migrants

SHARJAH: At a highway-side restaurant in the industrial outskirts of Dubai, workers methodically assemble packaged takeout meals of biryani rice, dal and brightly colored chicken curry for people in poverty and desperate to eat.
It’s not a soup kitchen or charity drive, but an ordinary hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant alongside a busy motorway in Sharjah, one of the seven desert sheikhdoms in the United Arab Emirates.
When other kitchens close for the night, Biryani Spot springs into action. The cooks collect leftover food and repurpose it into free, hot meals for underpaid or out-of-work migrants, largely from Southeast Asia. Those in need filter through the cramped restaurant at 10 p.m. to receive dinner — no questions asked.
“The current situation is you have a lot of jobless people, a lot of people who are struggling here because of their low salary,” restaurant co-founder Mohammed Shujath Ali said. “We don’t want to waste our food, ... we want to give it to people in need.”
As small businesses across the UAE shut down this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ali and his wife were getting ready to open up theirs. A former mechanical engineer, Ali long dreamed of running his own restaurant, a place where the migrant workers who power the plastic and fabric factories of Sharjah’s dusty Industrial Area 13 could savor familiar Indian, Pakistani and Bengali food at an exceptionally inexpensive price.
Instead of thwarting his plans, the pandemic-induced economic collapse created an opportunity. Tens of thousands of people working in the shadows of Dubai’s economy lost their jobs overnight, as hotels, restaurants and families fired their low-wage service workers in response to the lockdown.
Unable to draw on state support in a country that links their residency status to their jobs, many turned to charity to survive.
Over its two months of existence, Biryani Spot has mobilized to meet the area’s growing need for food aid. The place serves griddled paratha bread and a range of spiced meat and rice dishes for less than five dirhams (around $1.50) during the day, and for nothing late at night.
Those cheap or free meals go a long way in the UAE, a nation of some 9 million people with only about 1 million Emiratis. Southeast Asian laborers, taxi drivers, cleaners, cooks and office workers power businesses across the emirates, home to skyscraper-studded Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi. While many have returned home during the pandemic, others remained, hoping to find work to support loved ones back home.
Taj Al-Islam, a 50-year-old Bangladeshi carwash worker, long has struggled to make ends meet, earning about $270 a month, barely enough to feed his five children back home. He said the free takeout helps him stretch his budget a little longer.
Mohammed Shakeel, a 38-year-old from Pakistan, arrived at night’s end to take the remaining meals back to his mosque about 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) away in Dubai. After 19 years as a service manager at a luxury car dealership, he was fired in March when the virus struck. Now he fruitlessly knocks on company doors in search of work, feeling tired and lightheaded without food.
“In any other country I’d be supported if I lost a job like this, but here there’s no help,” Shakeel said as he piled up the food parcels.
So far, Biryani Spot’s biggest challenge is getting the word out. The sprawling neighborhood doesn’t have much foot traffic. Hidden from the street, the restaurant’s small yellow sign is easily missed among rows of ramshackle shops and abandoned buildings.
Ali promotes the free food through regular posts in Facebook groups for residents. When people don’t turn up, he packs dozens of meals and drives them directly to denser areas, taxi stands or offices where he knows cleaners on their night shifts go hungry.
He described the handouts as a “small contribution” to people in need, something that’s built into his faith as a Muslim.
“We are just a small-scale business, doing our job, like every human does in his own way,” Ali said.