"I am not a cook, I'm a biologist," apologizes Lucia Zaquini as I enter the shipping container. Along with Olga Patijn, she is baking a kind of ground meat cookie on a electric grill. The container is filled with steam and the smell of onions, spices, and something I don't immediately recognize. Just then, Wouter Hassing—the head of the Meat the Mushroom project—walks in and throws open a window, letting in the cold December air and releasing the steam.
I'm on a remote industrial site in Amsterdam-Noord, where Hassing and his colleagues are working on a unique experiment: They make a sort of "cheese" with shrimp waste—stuff that is normally processed into animal feed or spread on fields.
"Ninety percent of all Dutch shrimp is peeled in Morocco," says Hassing. "If you buy fresh prawns, you can assume that they are, on average, two months old. They are caught in the North Sea, cooked on the boat, shipped to Morocco, peeled and placed in preservative, and shipped back to the Netherlands again."
Beyond that, 70 percent of the weight of a shrimp is not even edible. "One kilo of shrimp leaves 700 grams of waste," says Hassing. Earlier this year, the Innovation Network connected Hassing with Telson, a shrimp processor in the small Groningen village of Leens. It's the only company that peels shrimp immediately after they're caught—not by hand, but with special peeling machines.
And that's where Meat the Mushroom comes into view. Hassing and his team primarily grow mushrooms for local restaurants, but they also experiment with other products created with the help of omnivorous fungus. "Everyone who works at Meat the Mushroom is quite a mushroom fanatic," Zaquini explains as we walk to the laboratory. "You can solve so many problems with them, and there are so many opportunities."
The small laboratory contains two large sterilization boilers, a shrimp waste bin, and several bags of the "cheese" at different stages. The shrimp shells are cooked, sterilized, and then inoculated with a culture of king oyster mushroom and grain. "You should Google 'king oyster,'" says Patijn. "I can tell you all the benefits but it's really a lot: It boosts our immune system, helps to prevent cancer, and is full of vitamins, including vitamin D. It is really a very special mushroom."
And the king oyster is crazy about shrimp.
"What's clever about mushrooms," says Hassing, "is that they can digest a whole tree. They slowly attack the chitin of shrimp shells—the hard part which is inedible for humans. They mushroom encapsulates the shell without having a clue what to do with it at first. The fungal threads are all sort of mini-scientists, who are constantly working to find a way to eat it. If one thread knows how, he tells it to the other thread."
For anyone who is not a scientist or mushroom fanatic, the basic formula is: shrimp waste + grain + king oyster = "cheese."
The Innovation Network had initially asked Hassing to do something with fish waste—something that people could eat. At first, he experimented with putting fish heads in a blender. That was not so successful. "We tried a lot of fish, but suddenly the shrimp shells came."
That mushrooms are suitable as a meat substitute and even mimic the taste of meat in a certain way is well-known. (And now we understand why: those greedy bastards eat everything!)
Within two weeks, the shrimp shells have transformed into the final product: the "cheese." Other possible product names are "mushroom meat" or "shrimp cake."
"Cheese is fermented milk; these are fermented shrimp shells," says Hassing. "It looks just like the French Mont d'Or cheese or Camembert, we think."
Zaquini is mainly concerned with the taste and the correct proportion of shrimp, mushrooms, and grains. The mushroom needs starch to be able to attack the chitin. "I've tried everything," she says. "Some things were disgusting. Potatoes, for example."
Zaquini also experimented endlessly with mushroom varieties. "Shiitake is, for example, very bitter. The king oyster really came out on top in our test, and it's the healthiest. "
The team is also working on a gluten-free version. Quinoa, spelt, and rice will work, too. "The rice version is really good to mince along to fill," says Patijn. "I recently fooled my friends who are quite fond of meat, by replacing a little meat with the cheese. They didn't notice."
And that is the whole purpose of the project: to create a sustainable alternative to meat.
Meat the Mushroom has also partnered with local restaurants, including Pllek and Café de Ceuvel, to test the limits of the product. "Pllek is going to smoke it to create 'facon'—fake bacon," says Zaquini. "Every chef has a different preference. One wants a stronger shrimp flavor; the other wants a lighter product. We are not food designers, so I need chefs to tell me, 'This is good.' The nice thing about this area is that the restaurants are very open to these kind of products. Everyone has a futuristic mentality."
"At Telson, they now have about 30,000 pounds of shrimp shells a week," says Patijn. "We cannot handle it all here yet. For the test batch of 500 pounds, we only used 20 pounds of shrimp."
When the testing phase is finally done, production may move to Groningen. "That saves on transportation and having the shrimp be frozen," Hassing says.
The product should be available as a meat substitute in January, giving us all the chance to con our friends with facon-and-cheese croquettes.