Category Archives: matsutake

Matsutake Sukiyaki Hotpot

I GOT A CALL from Doug (of The Mushroom Hunters) the other day. He’s bivouacked somewhere down in Humboldt or Mendocino County picking blacks and hogs. Meanwhile, Norcal friends of mine have been heckling me with texts and photos of their matsutake hauls of late.

Matsutake was still on sale (for outrageous prices) at Uwajimaya in Seattle last time I looked, so if you don’t live in California you might be able to make this dish with fresh store-bought mushrooms. Me, I had some just before the holiday season, which occasions this post, and probably won’t enjoy it again until next fall. 


AS A CHILD of the seventies, I’m well acquainted with regrettable fads, from pet rocks to Farrah Fawcett haircuts.

Fondu is not among them.

Our family loved fondu, one of many food crazes during that unfairly maligned decade, and we went through a few different fondu cooking sets just as Star Wars was beginning its long run. Invariably the slender forks got lost or broken, and anything made of wood ended up scorched by the little Sterno tins. But under the Christmas tree each year there would be a fresh new set to put to work.

Forget the Euro-Swiss cheese thing. We all preferred meat fondu, cooked in a pot of boiling oil that could have easily sent one of us kids to the ER with a misplaced elbow, not that anyone worried about stuff like that back then. My dad would bring home good beef from the butcher, pre-cut into small cubes; Mom kept the cupboard stocked with the few sauces available at the time, most of them with a Kikkoman label.

I WAS REMINDED of these good times around the fondu pot after spending an evening with my friend Taichi Kitamura recently at his top-notch Japanese restaurant, Sushi Kappo Tamura, devouring Sukiyaki Hotpot.

It was the tail-end of matsutake mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest and Taichi invited me to partake in a traditional preparation. With a dozen of us at the table, he had three bubbling hotpots along with platters overflowing with matsutake mushrooms, thinly sliced rib-eye and short rib, Napa cabbage, tofu, and pre-cooked cellophane noodles.

Taichi doesn’t use beef stock in his broth, or any stock for that matter, and I soon discovered that a simple mixture of water, sake, and soy sauce (sweetened with sugar) becomes increasingly profound as more ingredients, especially fresh slivers of matsutake buttons and premium cuts of beef, are cooked in it over the course of the evening.

The matsutake gives the broth its signature taste that is reminiscent of cinnamon and spice yet earthy and, for lack of a better word, fungaly. Autumn aroma is how the Japanese describe this tantalizing flavor. By the end, all the guests were clamoring for to-go containers so they could take home the rich dregs of this amazing broth mixed with a little rice.

Now I’m shopping for a fondu set—or maybe even a traditional Japanese or Korean hotpot. Regular readers will know that I’ve posted a Matsutake Sukiyaki recipe in the past, but Taichi has convinced me that it can be so much simpler and just as delicious. From now on I won’t be sautéing any of the sukiyaki ingredients; it’s just as tasty (even more so) to cook all the ingredients right in the pot, while sitting around the table with friends and family just like the old fondu days.

This same method is easily accomplished in the woods, by the way, after a long day of mushroom hunting, which puts it on an even higher level in my book.

3 cups water
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup sake
1/3 cup sugar (or more, to taste; Taichi will use as much as 3/4 cup)
3 – 4 (or more) matsutake buttons, thinly sliced
1 lb beef, thinly sliced (rib-eye, short rib, etc.)
1 lb cellophane noodles, pre-cooked
1/2 small Napa cabbage, sliced into wide ribbons
1 package tofu, cubed
1 small onion, sliced into half-moons (optional)
rice to accompany

1. Make rice and prepare raw hotpot ingredients: arrange beef on a platter, cube tofu, slice matsutake mushrooms and cabbage, and boil noodles until al dente before rinsing with cold tap water.

2. In a pot mix together water, sake, soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat slightly. Allow some of the sake alcohol to burn off before adding matsutake. Cook matsutake at a low boil or high simmer for a few minutes until its flavor has infused the broth, then begin adding raw ingredients in small portions. Add noodles last, just before ladling into bowls and serving with rice. Repeat. And repeat again.

Serves 4.

Wild Mushroom Show

This year marks the 50th year of the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s annual mushroom show in Seattle, and what a silver anniversary it will be! Join the fungal fun this weekend in Seattle.

Unless you’ve been living under a mossy rock, you probably know this has been a extraordinary fall for fungi in the Pacific Northwest. The cool, wet weather is bringing out a diversity of wild mushrooms, including some of the mycophagist’s favorites: king boletesmatsutakebear’s head, and many more. The woods are so full of chanterelles right now that commercial pickers are earning a dollar or less per pound!

Rarities will also be on display. Seems like everyone is finding blue chanterelles this year, in a addition to many unusual varieties of inedible, colorful, and poisonous fungi.

If you’re new to mushrooms or looking to improve your knowledge, the annual show is a great way to bone up. Real mushrooms, identified by common and scientific names (and edibility), will be on display. Expert identifiers can ID your catch with their microscopes. There will be cooking demos, lectures, slide presentations, and more mushroom-themed kitsch than you can shake a morel-handled walking stick at.

I’ll be at the show on Saturday from 3pm until close, selling and signing copies of The Mushroom Hunters, and on Sunday I’ll be giving a slide talk, “Adventures on the Mushroom Trail,” at 1pm and signing books afterward.

PSMS Annual Show

Saturday, October 12, 2013 – 12pm – 7pm
Sunday, October 13, 2013 – 10am – 5pm

The Mountaineers
Magnuson Park
7700 Sandpoint Way NE,
Seattle, WA 98115

Frozen Matsutake

I found two frosty packages in the back of the freezer the other day: matsutake buttons, four of them. According to the labels, I had picked them in October, 2010. Two years in the deep freeze!

The matsi were individually wrapped in foil. One pair was sealed in a Ziploc, the other pair vacuum-sealed. With an open bottle of sake in the fridge, I knew immediately the culinary experiment I was about to perform—Matsutake Sukiyaki.

I sort of remember my thinking at the time, two years ago. I had read somewhere that you could freeze firm matsutake buttons, that this was preferable to drying. Maybe someone at Puget Sound Mycological Society had recommended the technique. I had made similar experiments with porcini buttons years earlier. For whatever reason, wrapping the matsi buttons in foil was a required step. It seemed to me the best way to defrost them would be directly in the soup broth. I unwrapped the foil to find, luckily, that I had carefully cleaned the buttons and trimmed the stems before freezing. They looked a little darker but otherwise in good condition. I could smell the signature “autumn aroma” even in their cryogenic state.

And the result? The thawed mushrooms definitely imparted their essence of “red hots and dirty socks” to the soup—not as much as fresh specimens, but more than dried matsutake. The main problem was that the mushrooms were prohibitively chewy. After thawing in the soup, I removed and sliced them; next time I will either slice the thawed matsi razor-thin or cut into bite-sized pieces. As it was, I only ate the smaller slices. The main benefit to the sukiyaki was flavor rather than texture.

My experiments are not over. I still need to test the vacuum-sealed pair of buttons, and next time I’ll try not to lose them in the freezer for more than a few months. Overall, I’d say the results are encouraging for matsutake fans who want to experience the mushroom’s unique taste year-round.

Matsutake and Shellfish Soup

I’ve been getting emails about our lackluster fall mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest. Even NPR did a story on it—and they pretty much got it right. The mushrooms tried to pop right on schedule—and in some cases, such as with lobsters and white chanterelles, they succeeded—but the long dry spell in September burned much of the crop and then that first big storm in mid-October wiped it out.

Many a mushroom hunter was hoping the rain would have the immediate effect of causing a huge—if belated—flush. My hunch is that the mycelia had already formed primordia, and the deadly combo of drought followed by deluge dealt a knockout one-two punch. At this point we should be hoping for winter species like yellowfeet and hedgehogs, though I’m not optimistic.

The other day I picked a spot on the Olympic Peninsula that’s usually carpeted with mushrooms this time of year. We salvaged a few matsutake and passed by many more that had clearly suffered heat exhaustion. Yellowfeet were nowhere in evidence, and just a couple hogs had managed to fruit. A half-dozen cauliflower mushrooms saved the day, but even those showed signs of distress with obvious yellowing of the ruffles.

Cauliflower mushroom

Still, a half-pound of #4 matsutake is all it takes to make a good meal, and there’s something sweet about using wild main ingredients from two different kingdoms. This is a dish I had once over at Idle Wylde, the home of Foraged and Found Edibles proprietor Jeremy Faber. In typical fashion, he didn’t even remember making it when I asked for the recipe. I told him it included manila clams, matsutake, and leeks. “Makes sense,” he said, “matsi and shellfish go together.” So I tried to reconstruct it from my own hazy memory banks and the result was astonishingly good. At least, that’s what Marty said, and I have to agree.

1/2 lb matsutake mushrooms (or more), sliced
1 lb littleneck clams in the shell, scrubbed
1 lb mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
2 leeks, white part only, sliced
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 cup sake
1 cup chicken stock
1 scallion, thinly sliced for garnish

1. Saute sliced leeks in peanut oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, 2 minutes.

2. Add matsutake and cook together another couple minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sake and chicken stock and allow to simmer together a few minutes so the broth absorbs the singular matsi flavor.

3. Raise heat to high, add shellfish, and cover. Remove from heat when the clams and mussels have opened, careful not to overcook. Ladle into bowls and garnish with sliced scallion.

Serves 2 for dinner, or 4 as an appetizer.

Mushroom Hunting in China and Eastern Tibet

I met a self-proclaimed globetrotter at a barbecue the other day who told me that in a lifetime of traveling he’d never been to the Far East. That’s funny, I said to him, because I just got back from China. He wasn’t impressed. “The Chinese can have it,” he said sourly. “It’s their century anyway.”

The old codger may be right about the 21st century being stamped with Chinese characters, though I’m at a loss to explain how a so-called “lifetime of traveling” translates into such a narrow world view. Maybe if George W. Bush had spent more time on foreign soil—rather than extolling his own provincialism—he might not have made such a mess of things in the White House. There’s one way to gain a better understanding of the world and its people: by crossing borders.

My recent trip took me to southwestern China and the Tibetan Plateau. The lens through which I glimpsed these places was fungi.  Mushroom season is in full swing in the monsoon-soaked highlands and I wanted to see for myself a mushroom hunting scene that has been described as one of the busiest anywhere, with economic implications that stretch far and wide. Daniel Winkler, a member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and proprietor of Mushroaming, was my cheerful, indefatigable tour guide (besides an encyclopedic knowledge of local custom and natural history, the guy speaks enough Tibetan to hang out with nomadic yak herders).

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that I survived adventures this July to fill a book—or  at least a lengthy essay. Much of it I’m still trying to process. China is big, jam-packed with people, and not a little overwhelming. I’ve got work ahead to bring into focus my thousands of photos, hours of audio/video, and copious notes. In the meantime, allow me to share a little of the itinerary and some accompanying images.

The trip started in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, where the region’s infatuation with everything fungal was on display, at a price. Local pharmacies showed off wild medicinals such as reishi (pictured above) and Cordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar fungus. Should you seek these time-honored curatives, be prepared to open your wallet. One member of our party paid 480 rmb (about $75 US) for a dozen of the desiccated larvae of the ghost moth with their fungal parasites (called yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, with a reputation for restoring the humors, enhancing sexual prowess, and even producing Olympic Gold Medalists)—and she got a deal!

Mushrooms are widely eaten as food in the Far East, too. Restaurants in big cities and small towns alike routinely include both cultivated and wild varieties on their menus. One of the best meals of the trip was at this tiny restaurant (above) near Ya’an on the road to Kangding, where we dined on wood-ear and oyster mushrooms cooked to order by a wok-master and his wife. One of the many fun (and different) things about eating in China is seeing all the meat and produce on display in the restaurant’s glass-cased cooler; reading the menu for most of us westerners is an impossibility but one can always point.

Our first day out of Chengdu we followed rivers that I’d never heard of, rivers that, to the naked eye, would seem to dwarf the Skagit or even the Sacramento. The Red Basin is famous as the bread-basket of China, and it’s easy to see why when you start counting the major water courses that flow into it, including the 2,000-year-old irrigation diversion at Dujiangyan. There’s an unbelievable amount of water pouring out of mountains that seem to go on forever, especially during monsoon season.

We gained steady elevation, finally topping out at 8,400 feet in Kangding, a smallish city by Chinese standards with about 100,000 souls at the confluence of the Tar and Chen river gorges. Despite its size, Kangding boasted more wild mushroom dealers than I’ve ever seen in one place. Matsutake commanded the highest price, at 80 to 100 rmb per pound for #1 and #2 buttons, while the local varieties of Caesar’s amanita (Amanita hemibapha) and king bolete (Boletus sp.) were going for as much as 25 rmb for prime specimens, such as these amanita eggs below.

Other species for sale included the Himalayan gypsy (Cortinarius emodensisbelow); hawk’s wing (Sarcodon sp., below); Leccinum versipelleCatathelasma imperialis; various boletes, russulas, and chanterelles; and a Tricholoma similar to man-on-horseback.

One night we taste-tested the gypsy side by side with the mystery Tricholoma (below). The latter was favored by some, though I must say I preferred the gypsy for both taste and texture and will be looking for this mushroom more in the future. The Chinese are known for their nose-to-tail eating habits, and this catholic taste spills over into their use of fungi. Species that I don’t usually associate with the marketplace in the U.S. (e.g. Catathelasma imperialis, various russulas, and hawk’s wings) are routinely sold and eaten in China. This is in keeping with the agricultural strategy; virtually every square inch of arable land is under cultivation. With 1.4 billion inhabitants, even a nation as geographically large as China must continually think about food production.

A few days (and hard miles) later, while our drivers played cards, we investigated a likely slice of matsutake habitat in the oak forests above Yajiang with the help of a young Tibetan and his aunt (pictured below).

Fresh divots in the forest floor told the story: we were too late. Matsutake is intensively hunted on the Tibetan Plateau and represents a significant source of income for many Tibetans. The only species more important is the caterpillar fungus. Later we came upon some successful hunters in the woods. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, the pressure to find matsutake leads to a market overflowing with tiny buttons (called peanuts in the Pacific Northwest). This is compounded by the Japanese preference for unopened caps. If the pickers allowed the mushrooms to grow even a little bit, they’d make more money, but competition is so stiff that the buttons are exhumed as soon as they’re spotted. Even a seasoned matsutake hunter from North America would find the level of competition fierce. On this particular day we ran into pickers everywhere, many of them charging up and down the rough mountain roads on motorcycles.

While waiting for a landslide to be cleared—one of the many monsoon-induced road closures that would plague our journey—we met a matsutake buyer who couldn’t contain himself. Though he spoke no English, he must have understood the gist of our conversation as we all waited impatiently beside the muddy jeep track. He grabbed hold of my sleeve and ushered me back to his minivan. As he yanked open the sliding door, I imagined jack-booted authorities jumping out to arrest me, but instead I found myself staring at a carload of mostly #1 matsutake buttons, maybe 500 pounds in all.

Our high point in terms of elevation was the town of Lithang, birthplace of two Dalai Lamas. At 4,014 meters (or more than 13,000 feet above sea level), it’s one of the highest towns in the world, though it wasn’t a high point for morale. Sleep and appetite suffered in the thin air. Outside the tourist town of Yading we caught a miraculous glimpse of Mt. Chenresig, the sacred Buddhist peak of compassion (6,032 meters), normally shrouded in cloud cover.

The drive from Daocheng to Shangri-la in Yunnan Province passed through miles of awe-inspiring territory. We came across a guy selling a basketful of matsutake out in the middle of nowhere. (Or, more likely, he was waiting for his usual buyer to motor by.) This was a signal to keep our eyes peeled, and sure enough, we rounded a bend and saw a mushroom camp in the distance.

According to the people running the makeshift local store, about forty pickers plus their families had set up the camp in the past week. Some were still moving in.

The temporary settlement, with its simple tents constructed from tarps and wooden stringers cut on site, reminded me of the matsutake camp near Chemult, Oregon. There was a lot of activity as the inhabitants collected wood, shored up their domiciles with brush, and laid in supplies.

Unfortunately there was no time to linger. We had to press on to Shangri-la, a dingy city in Yunnan Province that has appropriated the famous name from Lost Horizon for itself. Yunnan is well known for its wild mushroom trade. Not surprisingly, Shangri-la had a corner of real estate devoted to the buying and selling of precious fungi.

Over the course of the trip, our group had a chance to sample many species of local edible mushrooms that we found along the way, including boletes, blewetts, a beautiful sulfur shelf, and others. We brought them to little family restaurants where there was never a question as to whether the mushrooms were safe to eat. The people know their mushrooms. Only once did a cook remind us that the responsibility was all ours.

Though our trip was built around the foraging and commerce of mushrooms, we also spent welcome time identifying mountain flora, visiting towns along the route, and exploring Buddhist monasteries. Outside Shangri-la I had one last opportunity to hunt mushrooms in China before flying back to Chengdu—on the grounds of a monastery where, among a roving band of pigs, chickens, and goats, I found a pair of  perfect Amanita hemibapha eggs and a beautiful Amanita from the vaginata group in the shadow of Tibetan prayer flags, a fitting end to an exciting and educational mushroom hunt.

Sichuan Chicken & Matsutake with Vinegar

To spend several days with matsutake pickers in Oregon and not come home with even a flag for my efforts was something of a dropped ball. So I spent a day at the coast yesterday picking yellowfoot and hedgehogs plus a few lingering kings and chanterelles—and a surprise late flush of matsi. Yes!

They were fruiting on the edges of an old railroad grade in private timberlands where the steam donkeys once worked. The rusted donkeys are mostly gone now—scrapped by tweakers who have already stolen every catalytic converter they can scrounge—but the Aloha Tavern still waits faithfully at the edge of the cut, a plume of smoke curling out of its wood stove chimney, serving Busch tallboys at the end of the day beneath the conniving grin of the shake rat.

Apparently the coastal matsutake have been infested with cap-worms in a big way this year, but I got lucky with a bunch of nice, fat worm-free mushrooms.

Every fall I develop more appreciation for this truly singular mushroom. Recently I learned why I like it more in Eastern preparations than in Western: unlike mushrooms favored by French, Italian, and other Western culinary traditions (think porcini, chanterelle, morel), the flavors in matsutake are water-soluble (as opposed to fat soluble). This is why these mushrooms respond so well to soy, sake, and rice vinegar rather than butter, cream, and cheese.

When matsutake is on the menu I usually stick to traditional Japanese dishes, such as Sukiyaki and Gohan. This time I went with spicy Sichuan.

For those keeping score at home, since picking up a copy a year ago I’ve been working my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, a treasure trove of Sichuan recipes, adding my own forager’s twist. Let’s see. So far I’ve made Fish-fragrant Geoduck with Morels, Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads, Sea-flavored Noodles with Porcini, and a few Kung Pao dinner party dishes with geoducks and morels that disappeared before I could get photographs for the blog.

This recipe is based on Dunlop’s Chicken with Vinegar, with a few tweaks. Obviously the inclusion of matsutake is the biggest change. Also, I added dried red chili peppers and substituted chili bean sauce for pickled chili paste (which I’d like to try next time). The textures of the three main ingredients—chicken, matsutake, and celery—work in harmony, with all of them velvety smooth but with varying resistance to the tooth. The egg-battered chicken is tender as all get-out, and the matsutake mushrooms make an aromatic accompaniment that is in keeping with the original recipe, their spicy flavor mixing with the chili peppers and black vinegar in a way that amplifies the overall dish.

I guess everyone liked it because there were no leftovers.

1 lb chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb (or more) matsutake, sliced 1/4-inch thin by 1-inch
3 celery stalks, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 heaping tbsp garlic, diced
1 heaping tbsp ginger, diced
2 tbsp chili bean sauce
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 handful dried red chili peppers
1 1/2 cups peanut oil

1 1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp salt

2 tbsp egg white
3 tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chicken stock

1. After dicing chicken, mix with marinade in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix the sauce in a small bowl.

3. Add batter ingredients to marinated chicken and stir well in one direction.

4. Heat 1 1/2 cups peanut oil in wok over medium flame. Add the chicken and then the celery. Prod with chopstick to eparate chicken pieces and cook until just white. Remove chicken and celery from wok with slotted spoon. Drain all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil.

5. Return wok to high heat and add matsutake. Cook 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, and then remove with a slotted spoon.

6. Add chili sauce to wok, stirring, and cook 30 seconds. Stir in garlic, ginger, and chili peppers and cook another 30 seconds before returning chicken, celery, and matsutake to wok. Give the sauce a quick stir and add to wok. Cook all together another minute or two until sauce thickens. Serve immediately over rice.

Serves 4 with rice and another dish.

Matsutake Camp

This past weekend I traveled down to Oregon with photographer Eirik Johnson (check out his work here) to pitch my tent at a matsutake camp in the Central Cascades of Oregon, on the edge of the high windblown desert. (More on the unlikely setting later.)

We stayed at the smaller camp in the woods near Crescent Lake, where a mushroom buyer named Joy was kind enough to give us space behind his buy station. That night pickers trickled back into camp to sell their day’s work to Joy, who was paying 20/20—twenty dollars a pound for both #1 and #2 matsutake buttons. The former (pictured at top) has an intact veil covering the gills—the preference of well-heeled customers in Japan, where these mushrooms were destined—while the latter is slightly marred by a small hole in the veil, as shown (barely) below if you click on the image. In any event, both grades fetch the same price in a year such as this, when the picking is poor and mushrooms are in demand.

That night we hung out by the fire with a couple pickers from Weed, California. Som, Laotian by birth, first started picking matsutake in the Crescent Lake area as a teenager with his mother. He’d been in camp since the highly regulated season opened after Labor Day. His dog Whiskey guarded the shelter by day.

Som’s friend Forrest, pictured below with his day’s pay, was picking for the first time since his usual construction work has dwindled. He told us the learning curve was steep—something we would learn firsthand the next day when we went picking with Joy and his kids.

Sometime after dark a refrigerated truck stopped at the buy station to collect 260 pounds of matsutake and drive it to Portland where it would be processed (cleaned and packed) and air-freighted to Japan so that the matsutake-crazed customers of that small island nation could shop for inividually-wrapped buttons at the market. Last year the nightly poundage at Joy’s station might have been five times more.

I’ve picked plenty of matsutake in the past closer to home, which I usually cook in a traditional Japanese-style sukiyaki. But here on the edge of the desert the picking is entirely different. Whereas I look for mature fir trees in the North Cascades, most of the picking at Crescent Lake is in pine: lodgepole and ponderosa, with a smattering of Douglas-fir and true firs. In some cases the tree composition is all pine and the conditions surprisingly dry.

Matsutake, however, thrive in sandy soils, and the pumice-laden soil in this volcanically active area provides ideal habitat. Mount Mazama‘s eruption nearly 7,700 years ago created Crater Lake and dumped three to five feet of pumice on the surrounding hills. Though the ground appears dry and dusty, the pine needle duff holds enough moisture to promote great fruitings. Joy said that Japanese customers appreciate the chewy texture of high desert Oregon matsutake.

Picking matsutake in the pine forests around Lake Crescent on a year such as this, when the pick is small, is not for beginners like Forrest (though he was fortunate to have an expert mentor in Som). In a normal year a matsutake patch will announce itself with “flags” or “flowers”—fully emerged mushrooms that indicate the presence of smaller buttons hiding under the duff. This year even the #6 flowers were commanding a decent price, meaning everything was getting picked. And experienced pickers who knew how to find the concealed buttons were being careful to “control” their patches, as a buyer named Leo explained to me, by picking everything to eliminate any evidence of fruiting mushrooms and then visiting regularly to catch the buttons before they emerged.

Finding a matsutake button beneath the duff on a forest floor otherwise devoid of any sign of fungi, indeed a floor without a single mushroom anywhere in sight, is an art form. Joy showed us how it was done. He carefully scanned the ground of a known patch before pausing over what to me was an imperceptible rise in the duff. Using a metal staff that resembled a tire iron, he scraped away a small amount of forest debris to reveal the white cap of a matsutake button. He picked it stem and all without trimming anything (Japanese customers want the dirt attached at the end, as this signifies life force). Later, when I tried to find matsutake on my own in a stretch of woods filled with pickers, I got completely blanked.

Unlike Joy, Som, and Forrest, who prefer camping in the woods, most of the pickers and buyers are now based out of the town of Chemult, 20 miles down the road from Crescent Junction, where several business owners in town rent space for mushroom camps. Pickers and buyers have moved here in recent years to avoid onerous fees levied first by the Forest Service and now Hoodoo, a private concessionairre. Hoodoo has since cut its prices, but it may be too late to lure the pickers away from the comforts of town, which include electricity and nearby groceries.

Margins are thin in the wild mushroom trade and costs can be shaved in other interesting ways. One buyer in Chemult operated out of a shipping container.

We were lucky enough to visit the night of a big celebration in support of a Buddhist temple in Springfield, Oregon, where many of the Southeast Asian pickers live. Lao, Hmong, Mien, and Cambodian pickers celebrated by slaughtering a cow and then feasting on a dinner of beef tripe soup, beef larb, sticky rice, and barbecued ribs. A Laotian pop star stopped by en route during a U.S. concert tour to entertain. Even Buddhist monks were on hand to offer blessings.

Much has been said about the Wild West nature of the Crescent Lake and Chemult matsutake scene. Indeed, I heard many stories around the fire, stories for another time. Suffice it to say that I was impressed by the skill of the pickers and the sense of community that attends this unusual stop on the mushroom trail.

The Delivery

In my ongoing effort to be a commercial mushroom gadfly—or maybe just a fly in the ointment—I hung out with the fellas at Foraged and Found Edibles the other day while they packed up a couple dozen restaurant shipments and made deliveries.

It was a relatively quiet day. When I arrived at the warehouse (the owner’s basement), Jonathan and Shane were busy sorting and cleaning mushrooms. Order by order, they packed chanterelles, porcini, and other mushrooms into cardboard flats and weighed them. A fan in the corner dried porcini and watercress soaked in a washbasin.

An hour later the packing was done and it was time to make deliveries. Jeremy, owner of Foraged and Found (pictured with a stack of baskets) owns a fleet of three Astro vans for the purpose, all of them used and cheap. He beats these vans like rented mules on the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest, but not before squeezing a couple hundred thousand miles out of each one, averaging more than a 100,000 miles a year.

Jonathan would cover east side restaurants for this delivery; Shane had the city. I hopped in with Jonathan, a CIA (NYC) graduate and former sous chef. Our first stop was his old employer, the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington, one of the Northwest’s most celebrated restaurants. I had the good fortune of eating there last spring with my food blog pals Hank Shaw, Holly Heyser, and Matt Wright. The Herbfarm doesn’t serve lunch, so the atmosphere was relaxed. Owner Ron Zimmerman came out to greet us (pictured taking possession of his beloved fungi at top of post). Right now he’s doing his popular annual Mycologist’s Dream menu and his order was both the biggest and most diverse, including chanterelles, yellowfoots, matsutake, both #1 and #2 porcini, a cauliflower mushroom, saffron milkcaps, hawkswings, and man-on-horseback mushrooms. Ron picked through the mushrooms with a knowing hand. We made some friendly chitchat and then headed off.

Next was Cafe Juanita, a perennial favorite on the north shore of Lake Washington in Kirkland. Chef-owner Holly Smith won a James Beard Award in 2008 and just seeing her face light up at the sight of a 10-pound bag of wild watercress was worth the trip. She teased out a strand and munched it approvingly.

Our last stop of the day put these first two deliveries in stark relief. The cook looked stressed out and annoyed at our presence for some reason that was never articulated. “How’s it going?” Jonathan said, trying to be friendly. “Busy!” the cook snapped. I have two children under 11, so I know “acting out” when I see it. It’s not a pretty sight in an adult. The cook slapped his dishrag on the table and grabbed Jonathan’s receipt book, which he slammed against the wall before signing for the goods, then handed it back without a word. He kicked his new box of watercress to one side and had someone take away the mushrooms.

So much for fresh local ingredients. Some people are in the wrong line of work. Jonathan told me one of the hardest parts of his job is trying to educate clients who don’t get the grading system. Even well known and long-standing restaurants don’t always understand that #1 porcini and matsutake buttons will be varying sizes, not always cute and petit. “It’s not as if mushrooms are grown like tomatoes in a mold,” he said. “They’re wild.”

That’s the point, but sometimes people want their wild ingredients to behave like conventional supermarket produce, domesticated and submissive. For years now a variety of cranks and schemers have tried to figure out the secrets of ectomycorrhizal fungi in order to grow them like a crop. Let’s hope they fail.

Grilled Matsutake

Matsutake, which means “pine mushroom” in Japanese, isn’t among my favorite of the wild edible mushrooms, but it’s fun to forage and I enjoy preparing it in traditional Japanese recipes.

Look for matsutake under conifers in well-drained, even sandy soils. Like porcini, it can be found near the ocean beaches of the Northwest and also in the mountains, especially in areas where volcanic soils are present. Matsutake fruits in other regions of North America including the woods of Maine and Ontario.

Though the Japanese prefer the mushroom in its button stage with gills entirely covered by the veil, I find that it becomes even more aromatic as the cap begins to open.

It has a singular aroma. David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified fame refers to it as “a provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and dirty socks.” In my opinion this spicy cinnamon-like flavor marries with Eastern culinary ingredients such as soy, rice vinegar, shaoxing wine, and so on, better than Western dairy ingredients such butter, cream, and cheese.

Probably my favorite preparation is Matsutake Sukiyaki. Gohan is another way to showcase this unique tasting mushroom. But if you want to experience the flavor in the most dressed down way, try grilling it. Slice the mushroom and grill over low to medium heat until light golden. It should be slightly crispy on the outside with a moist, meaty inside. A dipping sauce of equal portions soy sauce and rice vinegar completes this simple and flavorful dish.

Matsutake Gohan

The pineapple express that flooded local rivers this past week also extended a mushroom season that looked just about kaput. I was surprised to find a good fruiting of matsutake in the Olympic lowlands in addition to some passable chanties and a single porcino. Actually, I can’t say precisely whether the recent balmy/rainy weather is strictly of Hawaiian origin (we need Cliff Mass for that), but I can say that the matsutake were number 1 buttons, worm-free, and retailing at Uwajimaya for the bargain price of $35 a pound. For a moment I even considered selling my stash, but then I came to my senses.

I had a few pounds, so I made another sukiyaki and used the rest for Gohan. This is an exceptionally spare recipe that shows off the unique aroma of the matsutake (“red hots and dirty socks,” as they say) and is mostly executed by the rice cooker.

2 1/2 cups Japanese short-grain rice, thoroughly washed
2 1/2 cups water
1-2 matsutake mushrooms, sliced or shredded
1/3 cup carrot, diced
4 tbsp sake
4 tbsp soy sauce

Put rice and water in cooker and set aside for 30 minutes. Add matsutake, carrots, sake, and soy sauce, and turn on rice cooker. When rice is cooked, mix up ingredients and empty into a bowl. Cover and let sit 10 minutes before serving.