A mushroom of legend. For over 1000 years, the Japanese have spoken poeticcally about matsutake mushrooms as a symbol of autumn and longevity, with haikus and plenty of ceremony devoted to them.
These, along with Maitake, were two mushrooms known to be collected by samurai.
Like other prized mushrooms, each species of matsutake has a symbiotic relationship with trees. The exact species of host tree will vary from place to place, but they will always be pine trees. Here's a list of current species.
The variety harvested in the Pacific Northwest and sold commercially. One commercial hunter I know says lodgepole pine are his best producers.
The species found in Eastern North America. They love red pine plantations and jack pine.
Known as the Swedish matsutake, popularized by Chef Magnus Nilsson and others.
The real deal. These are the mushrooms harvested in Japan and Korea that are the most prized.
A more recently identified matsie from Mexico.
Matsutake are one of the most coveted mushrooms, typically available in the fall through specialty suppliers.
"In 1992, the New York Times reported that Japanese businessmen spent as much as 240$ American for a box of three or four mushrooms"
"In 2007, The North Korean leader Kim Jong II gave President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea 500 such boxes equaling 4 tons of matsutake mushrooms prior to a summit meeting."
Age and Grade
These are sold under number a system for chefs: 1, 2, 3, etc. 1's, the young buttons with an unbroken veil have the most potent flavor and the highest price. After the veil breaks and the mushroom has started to mature the aroma and flavor become weak.
Habitat: loss and gains
Unfortunately, the harvest in Japan has been declining from habitat loss. To meet the demand (they're impossible to grow), matsutake recently discovered in China, Korea, Sweden, Mexico are filling the gap along with the Pacific Northwest, which exports more than any place in the world.
Commercial pickers roam pine forests in the Pacific Northwest each fall on the hunt for them, and locations are closely held secrets. There's reports of people hiding out on trails robbing commercial pickers at gunpoint as well as much scarier tales.
"Stories about matsutake related violence in national forests (one man shot through the heart, his mushrooms missing; five dead in a prime matsutake patch, etc.) Have receded into legend."
There's a silver lining though. In Eastern North America, matsutake numbers are increasing, and, according the book "The Mushroom at the End of the World" they seem to be slowly infiltrating red pine plantations throughout Eastern North America. My own experience supports this too.
- Have a veil covering the gills when young.
- Have a powerful aroma when young that may smell like pine soil, cinnamon candy, and radishes.
- Always grow with coniferous trees-never deciduous.
Look A Likes
There's a few look-a-likes that may grow in similar habitat at the same time. None are poisonous.
The most common matsutake look-a-like is Tricholoma caligatum. Unlike true matsutake, these don't have a strong pine aroma, may taste bitter, and only grow with hardwoods.
You will never see them growing near red pine, jack pine, or other matsutake host trees. T. caligatum is edible, but it's nothing special.
I haven't seen these yet, and some hunters have told me it's more rare than Matsutake themselves. It grows with conifers and is said to be a mediocre edible.
Matsutake grow in the Midwest, but those places are rare. To hunters who know, they can be a holy grail of mushrooms. If you want to quest for them yourself, see my post: Hunting the Midwestern Matsutake: II.
The flavor of matsutake is deeply connected to Japanese food, so that's the best place to get inspiration for your matsutake recipes. First you'll need to clean them, and that can be difficult.
Unless you're picking yourself, the mushrooms have probably been sitting in a grocery store. Sitting on a shelf they dry out, making sand and dirt stick to them that can be difficult to remove. To clean matsutake, I like to peel them with a vegetable peeler.
With pine mushrooms, it's all about the aroma and flavor. I've cooked lots of wild mushrooms, but matsutake are in a class of their own. They're uniquely flavored and hard to describe, with an aroma powerful that some people won't like them. To me, it's one of nature's most incredible flavors, and the definition of delicacy.
Mycologist David Arora describes the aroma as a combination of red hots and dirty socks. Personally, I think they taste like the essence of pine soil, with a little spice thrown in.
You might see dried matsutake for sale, or be tempted to dehydrate mushrooms if you have a good harvest. Unfortunately Matsutake lose their flavor after drying.
A better method is to wrap them in foil and freeze-the David Arora technique. From there they can be cooked straight from the freezer.
- Matsutake gohan is the most traditional recipe.
- Traditionally the mushrooms are torn into pieces for cooking.
- No butter, cream or cheese should be served with Matsutake.
- Don't combine them with too many things or you won't be able to taste them.
- Cooking matsutake on high heat in a sauté pan will make their aroma waft into the air.
- They pair well with fish and seafood.
- Try grilling them "medium rare" as I share in my post here.
- Try eating them raw for a real treat, drizzled with good tasting oil (especially nut or seed oil) and sprinkled with a pinch of salt.