THE WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE MUSHROOM ? –

Tricholoma matsutake (S. Ito & S. Imai) Singer,

(“The Pine Fungus”)

Don Gover

While very large sums of money are spent buying truffles e.g. Western Australian black truffles are advertised for sale for $3 per gram or $3000.00 per kilogram, the above-ground fruit of Tricholoma matsutake, which have the classic mushroom cap and stipe form, have been known to retail in Japan for US $200 - 2000 a kilogram!

T. matsutake is a mycorrhizal fungus and the Japanese name “matsutake” means,” pine fungus” and it has been collected and consumed there from antiquity. Once widespread and common in the mixed pine forests of Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south, since 1905, the matsutake forests of Japan have been plagued by the pine nematode (Bursaphelenchus lignicolus). The nematode is transmitted to living pines by the Japanese pine sawyer (Monochamus alternatus), a longhorn beetle.

Most host pines of matsutake, including the Japanese black and red pines (Pinus thurbergii and P. densiflora), are very susceptible. Invasion of the tree’s vascular tissue by the nematode results in wilt and rapid death.

Since the introduction of the nematode on the southern island of Kyushu, it has steadily spread north-eastward. Recent reports indicate that the disease has also spread to the forests of Okinawa, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, and China.

The annual harvest of matsutake in Japan is now less than 1000 tonnes, consequently, with this decline of the locally available product, most matsutake is now imported, chiefly from Korea, China, Canada and the US, with Canada contributing 15 - 20% of the total import. Recently, countries such as Sweden and Mexico have also begun exporting. On the world market, Canadian mushrooms are worth about half the value of Korea's and one quarter of the Japanese.

 

T. matsutake is exported from Korea and China, together with other closely related Tricholoma species, while Tricholoma. magnivelare (Peck) Redhead, sometimes called the “American matsutake”, is exported from British Columbia and Quebec in Canada, Washington, Oregon and California in the USA and Mexico as fresh product and marketed in Japan as an acceptable, although less valuable, substitute for T. matsutake.

Tricholoma nauseosum (A. Blytt) Kytövuori, a Norwegian and Swedish species, which also occurs in parts of the highlands of central Europe and in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, is exported and considered to be gastronomically equivalent with recent molecular work indicating that it is the same species as T. matsutake.

Needless to say, with such a high priced commodity, in areas previously considered remote, such as the Himalayan pine forests of Nepal and Bhutan, T.matsutake is now collected and, using an air transport infrastructure, exported to Japan.

The prices paid for matsutake mushrooms vary according to origin and shape. The young unopened button specimens, gathered in Japan, are considered to be the best and fetch the highest price. But once the cap starts to open and the veil starts to break away from the cap, the grade and consequently the price decrease. In 1998, at the beginning of the collecting season in the Japanese autumn, matsutake over 8 cm long, unopened and with even thickness of stem, from Tamba (near Kyoto), considered the most highly prized, retailed for US $2000/kg. Imported matsutake, and closely related fungi had an average value of US $90/kg. With the flood of imports it appears that the average cost is rapidly declining and the days of very high prices are gone. Inevitably and unfortunately with such expensive commodities, fraudulent practices, such as increasing the weight by the insertion of slivers of lead into the stipe are not unknown.

Unlike many edible fungi the taste of the matsutake flavours are not the attraction, rather it is the emitted aroma. Sometimes described, by western palates, as fruity and spicy, but with a rather off-putting smell. However as the Japanese saying goes “Tade kuumushi mo sukizuki” (even the bugs that eat knotweed have likes and dislikes – or there ‘s no accounting for taste), accordingly, what is classed as a good aroma varies from culture to culture.

Indeed, a Japanese saying makes the distinction between aroma and flavour, “aromatic matsutake, tasty shimeji”, clearly meaning that while the aroma of matsutake is exquisite; the flavour of the shimeji mushroom (Tricholoma conglobatum) is far better.

Although many attempts have been made for the cultivation of T. matsutake, none to date have been commercially successful. Although methods have been developed for increasing matsutake yields from forests where it occurs naturally, methods for its cultivation remain elusive. Research in New Zealand, where the seasons are opposite to those in Japan, is directed at the introduction of T. matsutake with the aim of producing it for the lucrative out-of-season spring market in Japan.

It is still possible to collect T. matsutake in Japan where the foray is something of a social event in the autumn. Usually, bookings are made about 3-4 days in advance and the Japanese are up in the hills by sunrise with the collecting normally completed by 10 or 11 a.m.You may go to either a commercial farm with an entrance fee of about 4500 yen (A$ 55.00) per adult, 2500 yen (A$ 30.00) per child, which includes lunch (Sukiyaki and matsutake-rice) or a government owned forest, which is free. If you wish to take home from the commercial farms any mushrooms that you have collected, they will be sold to you at the current market price of that week!

The association of matsutake with pine trees, the Japanese symbol of longevity, has created a close connection with their cultural identity, which is probably a significant reason for matsutake being the world’s most expensive mushroom.