Matsu=Pine, Take=Mushroom

By Anthony Tassinello

The idea of finding dinner in the wild is a foreign one to most people, let alone those of us who grew up in the shadow of the big city. Perhaps this is what drew me, some 10 years ago, to forage for a near-sacred wild mushroom that grows, sometimes in abundance, here in Northern California.

This is a mushroom with such great gustatory prowess, culinary reverence and economic implications that people have been known to shield its location with armed guards. No, it isn’t a truffle or even the acclaimed King Boletus; it is the white matsutake.

Now, you are either scratching your head wondering why you have never heard of this interesting fungus or rubbing your hands together in a sinister fashion having just figured out what’s for dinner tonight.

If the name matsutake doesn’t ring a bell, don’t fret. Here is a crash course on this out-of-the-ordinary wild mushroom, from selecting prime specimens in the market to proper handling in the kitchen.

In these times of heightened food awareness, the pedigree of your meal can be just as important as its nutritional value. Derivation can, on rare occasions, even trump taste. But though much has been written about where our food comes from, and though it is an important discourse, this shall remain an account of one meal, built around one day and a location that shall remain unidentified. Thus, we can enjoy unhindered the ride to a delicious and memorable experience.

First, you should know that while finding the matsutake in a supermarket is not an easy task, finding them in the wild is even more daunting. If you don’t know a tan oak from a Douglas fir or the difference between a madrone and a manzanita, then your time and energy may be better spent locating a grocer with a reputable mushroom selection. We’re fortunate to have several in the East Bay, including the inviting Tokyo Fish—a Japanese emporium in Berkeley that carries matsutake once the season commences.

Secondly, be prepared to spend a little bit of coinage on these specimens, as they are rare, prized, and, most importantly, intoxicating. A meal with those qualities doesn’t come cheaply, which is why some of us are left to search the woods for dinner while others enjoy valet parking at the market. In Japan, where the special fungi are most cherished, prime or “number one” matsutake can sell for as much as $100 each. No matter though, for two or three matsutake can go a long way—even feeding a party of four, provided that none of your guests are Japanese. After an exploration in December, Minoru, a Japanese translator friend of mine brought home two full grocery bags and never once mentioned a problem with finding a use for them all. As for me, I settled for just three, which provided me and my wife with enough for two generous meals.

An interesting note: as of the writing of this article, the ongoing unruly behavior of one North Korean dictator has put a wrinkle in the global supply and demand of matsutake to Japan. North Korea, a main supplier of the delicacy, has had all economic exports to Japan halted while they work out the details of nuclear proliferation. Prices have risen accordingly, and this season has yet to reveal just how high those prices may climb. But for now, expect to pay between $25 and $40 per pound for fresh number one matsutake.

The term “number one” is a level in the grading system that foragers and buyers use to sort matsutake for retail sale. Number ones will look like they are encased in a thin white shroud and will have a pronounced spike shape. You should not be able to see the gills on the underside of the cap. The mushroom should be firm, dry, not overly dirty, and contain no bug damage. Slightly brown shading is normal as well as a shaggy appearance. Choose mushrooms with a very intense and unique smell. Hold the mushroom close to your nose and inhale long and deep. Be selective. It can be truly an unrivaled sensual expedition to sort through the myriad scents present in a fresh and later a cooked matsutake. Descriptions have ranged from cinnamon to dirty socks. These tastes and aromas fall into the category of umami, a Japanese word referring to one of five basic tastes humans can discern. Parmesan cheese and Italian truffles also have this quality.

Most of the mushroom hunts that I’ve attended start out with modest expectations. Usually, friends gather early in the morning and gaze skyward, wondering how the day’s weather will unfold. A few stories of past hunts inevitably spill out along with a few quiet words of humility. Nothing is worse than a forager full of braggadaccio when dinner has yet to be procured. For this particular hunt, however, the early fall rains had given way to ideal cooler temperatures, saturated woods, and a lunar cycle that was cooperative as well. (Some hunters, this one included, feel that mushrooms fruit in cycles that can be influenced by a number of factors. Temperature, rainfall, location, and even the phase of the moon all contribute to how well you’ll be eating that very night.) So, optimistically, off we went in search of our prized fungi.

Through the pines, past the oaks, over the creeks, under the barbed wire fence (we were granted permission to hunt on private land) and finally over gentle sandy hills dotted with madrones we trekked. In a matter of minutes, we were rooting through the leaves and underbrush, where many seasons worth of “leaf litter” might be preserving our intended catch. Finally, there at the nexus of pine trees, oaks, and madrones, in the shaded darkness: a sign (or “flag,” as we say); a large, open matsutake had pushed aside the skin of the earth and the camouflage of decomposing leaves. A beaming white flag of surrender set against the dark brown earth signaled where to turn our keen eyes. Quickly, as if fearing the mushrooms might get away before we could pick them, we gently began to unearth the pride of this particular hunting locale: white matsutake buttons.

Gloriously perfumed and shrouded in their new coats, they leapt into our baskets as our excitement and enthusiasm collectively rose. Minoru began leading us in chorus of “Matsu-take!” at each discovery. In 30 minutes we had enough for dinner, but the thrill of the pursuit fueled our energy and we couldn’t stop. Finally, when we had exhausted this generous habitat, we gazed wide eyed at our bulging baskets and bags with great self-assurance. Humility was brushed aside like the forest undergrowth that revealed our prizes. Was there ever a doubt that there would be perfumed matsutake rice for dinner?
Anthony Tassinello is currently a private chef in the Bay Area and has cooked intermittently at Chez Panisse since 1996. He has contributed to several cookbooks including Chez Panisse Fruits, Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, Campfire Cuisine, and most recently was featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. He and his wife Angela operate High Mountain Products Inc. a small business dedicated to local, seasonal wild mushrooms.

Perfumed Matsutake Rice

3 cups Japanese rice
3 cups water
2 or 3 small “number one” matsutake
1 abura-age – fried tofu (optional)
¼ cup sake
¼ cup soy sauce

Begin by washing the rice in several changes of cold water, repeating the process until the water becomes clear. Drain the rice thoroughly. Add rice and water to rice cooker and let stand for 30 minutes. In the meantime clean the mushrooms of all loose dirt using a firm brush or paring knife. You may peel back a bit of the thin outer layer if overly dirty. Using the large holes of a box grater, shred the mushrooms lengthwise into long strands. Alternatively, if using your hands, pull apart into small rough pieces of the same size. If using the optional fried tofu, cut into strips. Add the mushrooms, tofu, sake and soy sauce to the rice cooker, cover and follow manufacturer’s instructions for cooking.

Serves 6 as part of a larger meal

Resist the urge to treat matsutake in a western style cooking fashion (i.e., sautéing or frying in fat) as the essence of the mushroom will be lost and will result in a bland, tough dish. However, grilling is a wonderful way to enjoy matsutake, brushed lightly with soy sauce and allowed to caramelize slightly.