“When we go look for mushrooms, we don’t look for mushrooms,” Eric Schramm says. “We look for trees, because each mushroom that we pick commercially has a symbiotic relationship with a specific type of tree.”
Schramm is the founder of Mendocino Mushroom, the world’s oldest solely wild mushroom company, but when we meet at the Abalone Cook-Off in Fort Bragg, he’s cracking open sea urchins to extract blobs of uni, which he mixes with sake and sells for $10. “Are you brave?” asks the hand-written sign on his table, next to the spiny urchin husks that look like viruses magnified a million times. Most people are not.
Schramm ships shrooms to celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, but he’s also become something of a booster for the bounty of the Mendocino woods, which contain some of the most biodiverse spots on the North American continent. Along with Marc Dym, executive chef at the nearby Little River Inn, Schramm is one of the movers and shakers behind the forthcoming Mendocino Mushroom, Wine, and Beer Fest, held Nov. 3-12, where lovers of chanterelles, fall porcinis, and candy caps can learn to forage, sample tasting menus with beer pairings, and more.
And Schramm wears a still-fragrant candy cap threaded on a necklace, a fungal amulet that guides him through the forest.
“I’ve had them around my neck for 35 years,” he says. “I can’t tell you what else is in my medicine bag, because you might be a shape-shifter!”
Still, it doesn’t take much prodding to get him to extol the virtues — and anatomical weirdness — of Kingdom Fungi.
“Life wouldn’t exist without funguses doing what they do,” he says. “Under one footstep is 300 miles of mycelium. It breaks everything down to the carbon molecule, so trees can absorb things.”
Like the albino redwoods that seem to act as toxin vacuums, effectively sacrificing themselves for the good of their neighbors, mushrooms possess a cosmic, almost Avatar-like place in the ecosystem, maintaining balance and acting as conduits for the nutrients dead matter releases back into the soil. Pointing to enormous fossils that were mistakenly believed to be petrified trees until testing revealed them to be ancient fossils, Schramm points out that mushrooms effectively ruled the planet during periods after meteor impacts, when dust blotted out the sun and nearly everything that relied on photosynthesis died.
“Man has used mushrooms as a tool since we crawled out of the cave,” he says, “and we’re coming to understand all the good things mushrooms are doing. In my opinion, the way that humans and the Earth are going, mushrooms will rule the Earth again, because we’re destroying it. But when I do my seminars, what I really want people to come away with is an understanding of connection.
“Every living thing on the face of this Earth is connected,” he adds. “Everything has a job, everything has a purpose, and everything is intertwined. Over the past 35 years, these mushrooms have taken me on this journey.”
Although Schramm refuses to release much proprietary wisdom or let me in on any inkling about what secrets the woods have taught him, he’s equally enthusiastic about the potential for psilocybin to treat people suffering from addiction, depression, and PTSD as he is about bioremediation — warning: academic link — or the cultivation of fungus to clear up oil spills and devour mounds of plastic waste.
A native of Sunol, Calif., Schramm first came to isolated Mendocino as a child, when the trip from the Bay Area took more than three times longer than the current three hours. He’s convinced there are species in the area that remain unknown to science, and that improvements in DNA testing will reclassify many of those we do know about — plus, he’s personally eaten at least 60 species from around the world. More importantly, he’s sure that the efforts to cultivate truffles on Napa wineries will yield results, even if it is extremely difficult to achieve the necessary soil conditions.
“It’s more than feasible,” he says. “They harvested six pounds of the first alba truffles at Kendall-Jackson this January and February. There was another guy in Leggett, but he died and the farm went bad. K-J did it in seven years, and the minimum — we thought — was 30 years. It’s a lot of work to keep the pH right, but they’re doing the work in Napa. It’s happening.”
So how come he’s on uni duty today?
Well, Callie Dym, Marc’s wife and the Little River Inn’s fifth-generation innkeeper, asked him to. But at the same time, “sea urchins changed my life.”
While training to be a smoke-jumper, Schramm dove for abalone and got a sea urchin spine embedded in one knee. The subsequent infection forced him to become a forest patrolman instead — and that’s what led him to mushrooms.
“Urchins changed my life,” Schramm says, “and I’m getting revenge today.”