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Shiitake Happens

Mushrooming success for Graton gourmet food company

By Bruce Robinson

MALCOLM CLARK was crawling through a high Himalayan meadow on his belly, parting the grasses with his hands just inches in front of his eyes, when he lit upon his quarry. Poking up through the soil was a tendril of cordycerps, a rare fungus prized by Nepalese sherpas for its curative properties.

"It's a parasite that attaches itself to insect larvae," Clark explains, showing a visitor a preservative-filled test tube that holds a long greenish finger of fungus growing out of a much smaller caterpillar. Clark is two miles lower and halfway back around the globe now, in the modest Graton office of Gourmet Mushrooms, the company he and partner David Law have built on such unusual fungi over the past 20 years.

It is here that Clark is continuing his study of the peculiar plant, not because of its gastronomic applications, but to unveil its potential as an agent of human healing. For this improbable fungus produces a substance closely related to cyclosporin, which is derived from another variety of insect parasitic fungus and is the most widely used immunosuppressive drug for combating rejection of human transplanted organs.

This is just one of a multitude of fungal compounds that are being examined for their medicinal possibilities. Others have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, including reishi and shiitake mushrooms, two traditional healing mushrooms that Clark and Law have combined into a product called Rei-Shi-Gen, which has become their largest non-culinary product.

"We kind of married them together," says Law. They produce roughly a ton of the compound every month, which is marketed nationally and in 17 other countries in powder, capsule, and tincture forms as a blood tonic and aid to liver, heart, and lung function.

Another extract from a strain of shiitakes is undergoing FDA studies for use as "a non-invasive adjunct to chemotherapy," Clark says, and major pharmaceutical companies are beginning to display serious interest in the healing properties of other fungal derivatives. "All those deaf ears are not so deaf anymore," he says with a note of vindication, like a prophet belatedly gaining a little hometown honor.

The versatile shiitake mushroom has for generations been a staple of Oriental cooking, most often dried for storage and shipment before it is rehydrated at the time of cooking. Clark and Law are champions of fresh shiitakes, and their determination and promotion of these hardy 'shrooms over the past two decades have gradually brought the fungi to their current status as a familiar element in many styles of contemporary cuisine.

"Our goal was to bring shiitakes to the Safeway level," Clark says. "Now they're there in Safeway, but the quality is not quite there yet." In addition to popularizing new varieties of mushrooms, Gourmet Mushroom's goals now include "setting a standard," he adds. "If we can do it, somebody else can." When their standards are upheld, "the public benefits," he concludes.

But Clark and Law are doing more than redefining the standards for mushroom cultivation. They have aggressively developed new methods. Most of the company's fresh mushrooms, in fact, are types that it has trademarked with names designed to underscore their gastronomic and visual appeal: Pom Pom Blanc, Cinnamon Gap, Golden Oyster, and the tan-tipped Trumpet Royale.

These are grown in patented square containers on long racks in a quiet, dimly lit one-acre building, where the entire life cycle is accelerated to take about 12 weeks. The freshly harvested "fruits" are then trucked to upscale restaurants in San Francisco, or shipped by overnight freight to chefs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Zurich, and even Japan. Curiously, Law says, they have found Chinese chefs resistant to the new types of mushrooms, as many are reluctant to depart from the traditional recipes and ingredients that have been used for generations.

Even without the traditionalists, "there's a bigger market out there waiting for our products, and we can't meet it," says Clark.

That should change when the company moves into a 43,000-square-foot building soon to be constructed on a 20-acre site along Highway 116, not far from their current location. In addition to being nearly three times as large and significantly more efficient than their existing growing facilities, the new location will also have room for a demonstration garden to showcase the benefits of spent mushroom mycelium as an organic fertilizing agent. It may also allow Gourmet Mushrooms to appear in a limited number of local retail stores (they now are sold only occasionally at Sebastopol's Fiesta Market).

With site work already completed, Clark and Law hope to be moved into their new plant by late spring, a transition that will allow Clark to resume his global search for new varieties and mutations with untapped commercial potentials. Like the time he was in Bali, ostensibly on vacation, when he visited an outdoor farmers market. "They had some fresh mushrooms I recognized as oyster mushrooms," but they were a shade of blue he had never seen before, Clark recalls.

At his urging, "they took me out the next day, we found some, got some samples," and rushed back home, where the first crop of Gourmet Mushroom's newly trademarked Blue Oyster mushrooms went to market just seven weeks later.

With hundred of thousands of varieties of fungus known on the planet, it's clear that this "Indiana Jones of mushrooms," as he has been dubbed by a niece, still has plenty of work left to do.

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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