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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011
In search of the Holy Grail of mushrooms
Heading for the hills on a matsutake hunt
By JOHN ASHBURNE
The ancients were none too complimentary about their fungi. "Few of them are good, and most produce a choking sensation," wrote Marcus Athenaeus of Naucratis 1,800 years ago in "Deipnosophistae" ("Philosophers at Dinner").
The proto-vegetarian and Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger had been equally disdainful some three centuries before that. "Mushrooms are not really food," he snooted, "but are relished to bully the sated stomach into further eating."
Seemingly, Bedouins of old were even more robustly opinionated, and wouldn't touch the things with a tent pole.
Pooh bah to the ancients and the nomads, say we.
The Japanese passion for mushrooms, and in particular the aromatic gourmet treasures that are matsutake, was documented as early as 1712 in the "Wakan Sansai Zue" encyclopedia, and kinokogari (mushroom gathering) remains, supermarkets notwithstanding, an integral part of the unchanging rhythm of countryside life.
My own mushroom fever began in the late 1980s, when I happened to be living not a windblown spore's waft away from the Kokusai Kinoko Kaikan International Mushroom Research Center and Hotel in Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture.
The KKK, as we waggishly dubbed it, was a mycophile's paradise, with a brilliant mushroom restaurant, a gift shop that sold sublime shiitake dashi stock, yukata (summer kimonos) emblazoned with mushroom motifs, and various health-giving and/or loins-stirring mushroom potions, lotions and pills. Indeed, one wing of the hotel was even shaped like a giant shiitake.
I fell in love with the place at once, and was even coerced into opining about shiitake wine on camera for its promotional video. "Mmm, oishii [dramatic pause] — delicious!" Apparently I made it onto national TV, in Taiwan.
In the succeeding decades since my brush with fungal-stardom, I have traveled far and near in my own kinokogari quests.
One unforgettable trip took me to Fukushima Prefecture in search of ipponshimeji mushrooms with a motley crew of wily, mushroom-obsessed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Gunma-born truck drivers. We scored big time — but not in the magical, Alice in Wonderland way of some self-styled schroomers we've occasionally encountered.
Yet in all my fungal foraging, I had never managed to find the pot of gold at the end of every kinokogari's rainbow — that Holy Grail of Japan's mycological pantheon: Tricholoma matsutake. It was clearly time to bring in an expert.
When he's not surfing, tending Kyoto's myriad Zen gardens — his day job — or singing Beatles songs in a cover band, Toshiaki Mizuguchi is a professional matsutake hunter. "I first went up the mountain with my father when I was 5," the 40-year-old explains. "And I've been eating matsutake ever since."
We meet at a prearranged destination near a highway exit in western Kyoto Prefecture. I half-expect to be blindfolded and bundled into the back of Mizuguchi's surf wagon, but instead I am warmly encouraged to follow him through the winding country lanes to the trailhead where our hunt will begin.
It is a gorgeous early autumn morning, and the farmers are harvesting rice in the paddies. "I was in the hills this morning," Mizuguchi says with a smile, "and the matsutake are out already." I feel a shiver of excitement run through my being. The hunt is on.
Matsutake are notoriously hard to find, but, as Mizuguchi explains, nature gives us some clues. As their name suggests, they are found alongside the Japanese matsu (pine), in particular the akamatsu (Pinus densiflora). Rather than emerging near the trees' roots, they are always a short distance away from the distinctive red trunks, and begin to appear at the onset of the akisame (autumn rains).
So, don't bother to consult a calendar — just follow your nose, literally. When the white, yellow or orange flowers of the kinmokusei (sweet osmanthus, Osmanthus fragrans) throw out their delicious scent, it's time to head for the hills.
At the trailhead, myself, my wife and Mizuguchi team up with three yamashi (professional mountain men), sure-footed, wiry and strong. They are a friendly crew. One confesses that he was on a drinking marathon from 6 the previous evening until 6 this morning, but he doesn't seem to bear any ill-effects.
Our hunting party enters the forest, and almost immediately start climbing up through the thick woodland toward the hunting grounds. We cross a small river, then branch off to follow a dry ravine that's still littered with fallen rocks and trees from recent typhoons. The track becomes narrow, and extremely steep. We are only 10 minutes from the trailhead, but I am breathing hard already.
We are in the Tamba region of Kyoto, famed for its matsutake, its kuromame beans and finest-quality beef. It is a lovely part of the prefecture, and everywhere early autumn nature is going about its business. As we stop for a breather, I notice a multicolored jorogumo spider slowly devouring a moth trapped in its web. A deer emits a high-pitch cry, and the view across the plains far below is spectacular. A large, scary-looking (and poisonous) mukade centipede writhes across our path. Time to move on.
The trail is now so steep that my forehead is almost touching the forest floor as I labor from side to side. The morning-after yamashi — who all the while's been springing off up the trail and out of sight — grins. "Ashita hiza ga warau zo! ("Your knees will be laughing tomorrow"), he intones with a chuckle.
Then finally the gradient eases a little, and Mizuguchi raises his hand in a motion for us to stop. "After here, there are matsuake. Guaranteed!" he announces excitedly. Then to ready us for the coming fray, he proffers some earthy kinokogari wisdom. "You bend down to the ground, like this," he says, demonstrating, "as if you were trying to peer up a girl's skirt." We dutifully follow suit, and are soon crawling around on all fours.
"Once you find matsutake, watch your step, because there will be more nearby," Mizuguchi cautions. There would be nothing worse for even a novice fungus fiend, I reflect, than to inadvertently trample on what are arguably (give or take the odd supertruffle) the world's most valuable mushrooms.
The yamashi call us over to a particularly promising-looking area. I glimpse a light-brown glint of color in front of me. A mushroom! But it's a humble everyday sort.
I slowly scan the forest floor, moving gingerly across the damp earth. And then ... peering out through the leaf litter, unmistakable, is a matsutake! Then another, and another. We are in Matsutake El Dorado.
The yamashi gather round, and we decide to harvest only the largest specimen. You should never use a knife to remove the mushrooms, as steel taints the flesh and ruins the delicate aroma.
Mizuguchi instructs me to slowly poke my fingers into the loamy earth, and feel my way around the base of the stem. I scrape back the soil and leaves, taking care not to damage my precious find. Slowly its distinctive, not a little giggle-inducing shape begins to reveal itself. This one is a beauty, larger than the width of my hand, and in perfect early season condition. As I gently detach it from its root base, it makes a delicate sound, something akin to softly tearing open a French loaf. Mizuguchi grins from ear to ear.
"That's the best sound on the mountain, isn't it? Are you happy?"
Ecstatic, I would say. We continue our hunt for another 20 minutes or so, just in time for Mrs. A to discover her own matsutake — actually, a triple-header growing through the twisted roots of a pine. As she coaxes it from the ground, her prize splits into three, which would greatly reduce its market value — and last year, prime specimens were fetching up to ¥300,000 apiece. But of course we are not in this for the cash. Our matsutake are, and very soon too, purely for the savoring. As we zigzag back down the steep slope, my stomach is already rumbling in anticipation.
Back at our trailhead base camp, as Mizuguchi's wife, Fumiko, prepares us a hearty matsutake sukiyaki feast, and the yamashi share around beer and cigarettes, I wonder out loud whether there is even a single soul in Japan who shares the ancients' disdain for fungi.
It turns out there might be.
"Well, I guess they are okay," Mizuguchi says. "But when you've been eating them for as long as I have, they aren't that special anymore. I usually give mine to the wife."
Toshiaki Mizuguchi takes selected clients matsutake hunting every year, from Oct. 15 to Nov. 6. For ¥8,000 each, he picks you up at Yagi Station on the JR Sagano Line, then take you for several hours' gathering before his wife serves up an alfresco meal of matsutake and jidori (local chicken) sukiyaki, grilled matsutake, matsutake gohan (in rice), and homemade zenzai (traditional sweets). Alcohol is charged separately. Finding mushrooms isn't guaranteed, especially as season's-end nears — though the delicious matsutake cuisine is. Parties of 1-100 are welcome. For more details or to make a reservation, call Yasugen Matsutake at (0771) 42-2231 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org (both Japanese only).