Matsutake (by Bob Sellers)

Mushroom of the Month: August, 2013

Of all the choice edible mushrooms that occur in our area, none has eluded me longer than the matsutake, Tricholoma magnivelare. The name matsutake literally means pine mushroom, from the habitat in which it is found in Japan. Formerly called Armillaria ponderosa, our species is a close relative of the Japanese form.

For years I had scoured the mountains looking for my own secret patch of this much esteemed fungus. Every year l would stare with envy at the dozen or so which mystically appeared at each Fungus Fair knowing that they came from some place nearby. The preferred local habitat is tanoak, or so I was told. Yet all my years of searching had failed to turn up any. These must be the best-kept secret in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Why? I didn't want to be forced to drive north to Mendocino Co. just to find my first matsutake. Where were they? While it might be true that tanoak is the preferred habitat, l found my first specimen and subsequent others on Christmas day (nice present. huh?) in the kind of place you would normally pass by for hunting. The kind of place that a jack rabbit or a covey of quail hiding from a larger predator would take refuge in. The kind of place that leaves you with battered shin bones. telltale scratches. and shredded clothing. The kind of place where your progress is measured in feet/ min. rather than feet/sec. There must be square miles of dense impenetrable thickets of manzanita and scrub oak in the Santa Cruz mountains. Throw in a few chinquapins, pines and sandy soil and you'll begin to visualize the habitat l'm describing. Imagine crawling on your belly with barely enough room for you and your basket, or banging your shins against umpteen manzanita burls and you get the idea. Yet this is where they grow and why they had eluded me for so long.

Matsutake The matsutake clan comprises at least 3 species: the white matsutake, T. magnivelare, our local representative; T. caligatum, which has a darker fibrillose cap and occurs east of the Great Lakes and under conifers in the Pacific NW; and T. matsutake, which occurs in Japan and the Orient and closely resembles T. caligatum. Our version of the matsutake is a firm, dense, robust mushroom standing up to 6" tall with a cap as large as 8"-10" in diameter. The cap is initially white, dense and firm, but soon develops cinnamon to brown fibrils. The cap margin is inrolled when young. The gills are white but usually discolor brownish with age. The spore print is white. The stem is l"-2" thick, hard and tough, white above, but scaly below and colored like the cap. There is a thick white veil forming a prominent ring that flares outward from the stem. The most unique feature of the matsutake, however is its odor - what David Arora refers to as "a provocative compromise between 'red hots’ and dirty socks."

Matsutake (by Hugh Smith) There is definitely a cinnamon component to it. I thought this odor was unique to the matsutake group but there is another local mushroom I found with the same fragrance but vastly different appearance called Inocybe pyriodora. Matsutake are highly esteemed in Japan. The demand for these mushrooms is so great that individual specimens command prices as high as $300 depending upon their size and condition. A lucrative export business has developed in the Pacific Northwest for matsutakes which are air freighted directly to Tokyo where there is an ever increasing market for these "exotic" fungi. Last month (December 1988) I saw our local matsutake selling at the Monterey Market in Palo Alto for $27/1b., quite a bargain compared to Japanese prices ! You would expect a special treat from such a high priced mushroom, and the matsutake is probably worth it. It tastes like it smells (without the dirty socks) and keeps its somewhat chewy texture when cooked. It is wonderful simply sliced razor thin and grilled with soy sauce. I also like it finely shredded in a stir fry dish and have used it in small quantities to season white rice.

Bob Sellers, January 1989