Matsutake, often abbreviated to mat’take, probably need little introduction, as their monumental price has assured that they receive fame the world over as ‘those Japanese mushrooms that cost the earth’. Yup, that’s them. Matsutake only grow – actually a better verb is ‘fruit’, as they, like all mushrooms and fungi are, strictly speaking, the fruiting bodies of the web-like mycelium, an organism that exists beneath the earth – in a short period during the autumn months.
At the market they are classified by the extent that their cap has opened, from the young, fully closed koro, via tsubomi, naka-tsubomi, to the fully open hiraki. The best and priciest are tsubomi and naka-tsubomi. Check to see that the edge of the semi-opened cap is still firm.
Matsutake are prized for their fragrance, and status, even more than their delicate taste. A common saying is nioi matsutake, aji shimeji meaning ‘matsutake for the smell, shimeji for the taste’. I wouldn’t disagree, but would be tempted to change the phrase to nioi matsutake, aji mori-no-maitake, replacing shimeji with wild maitake. I suppose I am a heretic.
Matsutake are most often served steamed, with vegetables and perhaps some fish such as hamo pike conger in a small earthenware ‘teapot’, a dobin, which gives its name to the dish dobinmushi (pictured left). Often a sliver of yuzu citrus is added. You savor the exquisite aroma as you remove the lid from the pot, and from a small porcelain cup drink the juice in which the matsutake has been steamed. You then eat the mushrooms themselves. Matsutake can be grilled in foil foiruyaki, or steamed with rice to make matsutake-gohan (above). They can also be introduced to an up-market version of sukiyaki (below). All are an autumn feature of rural ryokan traditional inns.
Part of the reason for the mushroom's expense is that matsutake are pretty much impossible to rear artificially. Imports from Turkey, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the USA are cheaper, but are pale imitations of ‘the real thing’.
The Tamba region of Kyoto Prefecture is well known for matsutake growing in the shade of its akamatsu red pines. However, be wary of going hunting yourself. Locals protect their territory fiercely, and may carry knives and hunting rifles. I’m not kidding. In a throwback to medieval times, some even set mantraps.
You may be able to find a professional to take you on a kinokogari hunt, but don't be surprised if you have to sign secrecy agreements. The thrill of finding one, unearthing it, carrying it down the mountain, and cooking it is unparalleled.