Large non-descript buildings in Sonoma County often signal a wine storage facility or a winery sans tasting room. People always wonder what lurks behind the big walls. Sitting across from Merry Edwards Winery is one of these buildings. You hardly notice it as you drive by on Highway 116, but the contents and activity beyond the exterior is something pretty amazing.
Back in 1976 Malcolm Clark, who was at the time a lab director in Toronto, was introduced to David Law, a graduate student at the time. The two had a vision to pioneer the cultivation of exotic mushrooms and chose to pursue this venture in Western Sonoma County.
Clark and Law worked closely with renowned mycologist Dr. Tsuneto Yoshii of the Yoshii Mycological Research Institute in Oita, Japan. "Dr. Yoshii was THE pioneer of sawdust cultivation of Shiitake mushrooms," explains Law, president and CEO of Gourmet Mushroom, Inc. He taught them how to cultivate mushrooms in a very non-traditional way.
While the typical button mushroom that you find in the grocery store is cultivated in manure, the team at Gourmet Mushroom, Inc. uses an entirely different process, which was developed by the late Dr. Yoshii, and the Japanese mushroom industry.
Their foundation for the growth of mushrooms is largely made up of agricultural byproduct, which includes sawdust, soybean hulls and the husks of corn. These organic components are blended together to create the “soil” that is used to nurture the spawns that ultimately grow into their gourmet specialty mushrooms.
The inside of the 40,000+ square foot building is fascinating and somewhat resembles a winemaking facility. While they don’t have a crush pad, they do have a receiving area where the sawdust, soy hulls and husks are delivered. These ingredients are loaded into a large machine, similar to a press, that blends and prepares the mix to be packed into the tiny containers. The tiny plastic containers are kind of like large oak wine barrels. Their role is to serve as a vessel for the cultivation of something that evolves from a mere spawn into a bouquet of gorgeous mushrooms.
To see the process from agricultural byproduct to tiny container housing spawn is pretty cool. It is a mixture of organics, innovation and pure science. While wine can take years to mature in barrels, the mushrooms they produce live in a climate controlled room for 6-12 weeks (depending on the variety) before being harvested, packaged and then shipped to grocery stores and some of the finest restaurants in the country. You know these fungi must be something special when names like Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck roll off of David’s tongue as a few of the company’s thousands of customers in North America.
One of their most interesting species is the Forest Nameko™ variety. This mushroom has a naturally occurring gelatin on the cap that lightly thickens soups or sauces. While the Maitake Frondosa™ with its crunchy texture and earthy flavor superbly compliments roasted meats and greens.
With six varieties in all Gourmet Mushroom Inc. has cornered the North American market and literally created the specialty mushroom category. Their products can be found on plates at some of the finest restaurants in the country and now at local grocery stores including Whole Foods and Safeway. Consumer can also order gourmet mushroom gift baskets by logging on to their site and placing an order. They also offer up a number of recipes on their site as well.