Eric Schramm, the Mushroom Man
By Kathy Chin Leong
"I know this sounds weird, but smell this. Go ahead. Smell it." Here at the classy Café Beaujolais in Mendocino, Eric Schramm, a burly lumberjack of a fellow, extends a small leather pouch for his dinner companions to sniff. It hangs off a short cord around his neck, and he apparently doesn’t mind that patrons are staring when his friends lean in to get a whiff of this golf ball-sized sack.
"Go ahead," he encourages. "Tell me what it smells like." Comrades confer briefly and then agree. Maple syrup. Definitely maple syrup. Like a magician about to divulge a secret, Eric empties the contents of his pouch into his palm to reveal shriveled scraps of tan-colored fungi. These aromatic slivers are pieces of candy cap, a hard-to-find mushroom regarded as gold in the fungi world. Only four hundred pounds are produced annually, and luckily for Eric, about 100 of those pounds come from Mendocino County where he lives. He attests that some 3,000 different kinds grow wild in the region.
WHO IS HE?
Among Mendonesians, mycologists, and food buyers, the resident is a celeb. He’s known as The Mushroom Man, King of the Candy Caps, and owner/founder/czar of Mendocino Mushrooms. Cheerful and upbeat, he ambles about town wearing jeans, that pouch necklace, and a mushroom print t-shirt. This wholesale mushroom broker has been involved in foraging, buying and selling for over twenty five years. Mendocino Mushrooms harvests about 60,000 pounds of wild mushrooms annually.
Restaurants such as Café Beaujolais use the coveted candy cap for its signature dish- the broiled sturgeon with candy cap mushroom sauce. It is one of the best sellers. In fact, Mendocino restaurateurs are so fascinated with the candy cap they delight in concocting recipes for candy cap ice cream, cookies, crème brulee, and anything else to glorify its yummy, sweet flavor.
"I’ve been looking for the candy cap my whole life," says executive chef David LaMonica, owner of Café Beaujolais. "I read about Eric and hunted him down. He’s so trusting that when I came to his house to buy $400 worth of mushrooms, he told me he’d bill me later." Eric fulfills nearly all of LaMonica’s candy cap and miscellaneous ‘shroom needs, and the restaurant owner says Eric hasn’t given him one "bogus mushroom" yet. "He definitely knows his stuff." Eric, notes, by the way, that there has never been a poison report in the industry.
WHEN IT BEGAN
Oh, those mycelium memories. Eric’s love affair with wild mushrooms popped up in the early ‘70s. As a forest service patrolman in Northern California, he became fascinated with the vast array of mushroom species in the woods. When he came to Mendocino, he was enthralled with their endless characteristics: flavors span from smoky to earthy to nutty; shapes resemble other edibles such as cauliflower and peach pits; and vibrant hues cry out in greens, yellow, scarlet. Eric sold them to local chefs, and soon found buyers in New York, Europe, and Asia.
As his customers clamored for more, he taught eager hunters how to identify and determine which were edible and poisonous, top grade versus inferior quality. Friends and their friends were Eric’s first pickers, and soon everyone wanted to cash in on the action: mothers and their kids, senior citizens, single men, transients, anyone who showed interest.
Equipment for mushroom hunting is basic, says Eric. A pocket knife with a clean, sharp blade and a bucket is all that is needed. And essential to the hunt is a keen eye. Pickers are a competitive bunch, and they often bolt out into the forest at the daybreak, sometimes earlier wielding flashlights. "No one owns the public land, but people have their secret spots," he confides.
These zealots are known as "rain chasers," for the little caps will appear after a storm or an overnight drench. While most people would simple see a pile of wet leaves as a pile of wet leaves, trained mushroom hunters spy a potential goldmine. They can hone in on the slivers of fleshy caps under foliage and go for the kill. Every unusual mound or crack in the on the forest floor is suspect.
Mushroom hunting can be lucrative business. "You can earn as much as $500 to $600 a day in cash," he says. "I’ve trained a lot of people who’ve gotten very good." So each day around 4 p.m., Eric can count on his parade of pickers who trundle in with fresh booty in buckets of every size and color. On his woodsy property, he maintains a trailer that includes a giant refrigerator for storage, and an open sorting station- a table area where pickers line up to show their catch, have their mushrooms evaluated for quality, and get paid on the spot.
Eric offers top dollar for the cleanest ones with the fewest bruises and nicks. Certain mushrooms such as the matsutake may look perfect, but can hold insects that eat the mushroom from the inside out. He can tell by gently squeezing the poor thing between his thumb and forefinger. "This one’s no good," he concludes, talking to one of the hunters. He pulls out a pocket knife and slices it down the middle. Sure enough, the inside of this poor matsutake looks discolored and deteriorated.
While Eric loves the hunt, his real work these days is waking up early to make daily phone calls to his buyers. From his La-Z-Boy lounger in his living room (a.k.a "command central"), he transacts thousands of dollars of business with a cordless phone in one hand, a pad of paper in the other.
The entrepeneur runs his thriving business without a computer which means no Internet, software spreadsheets, computerized invoices, or e-mail. His cell phone is the most high-tech aspect of his corporate arsenal.
MUSHROOMS AND LIFE
For this tireless advocate, ‘shrooms are not just a business, but, if there is such a thing, a way of life. An avid reader of mushroom biology and related books, he consumes mushroom-based vitamin capsules daily. Eric is convinced that the fungi kingdom holds the keys to nutrition, health, and vitality. "Research is always going on," he says. "Scientists are just beginning to confirm mushrooms’ medicininal value, but the Chinese and Japanese have known about their value for years."
He cooks and eats some form of mushroom dish as often as he can, be it an omelet with a buttery chanterelle or a pasta with the seafood flair of the oyster mushroom. In his spare time, he gives workshops at cooking schools and restaurants. Today, Eric is convinced that mushrooms were his destiny, and here’s why:
As a young man back in 1969, right before he went to serve in the military and before he fell in love with this culinary marvel, his mother gave him a denim shirt as a parting gift. When he tells this story to class admirers, many "oohs" and "aahs" and even tears are shed as he holds up the back of the forty-year-old shirt to reveal, (what else?) a colorful, hand-embroidered design of a family of mushrooms.
www.mendocinofun.com : You can find out more about Mendocino and read Eric's weather blog.
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