Ben Hills

As autumn comes and mists shroud the mountains of Nagano prefecture, Shigeo Furuta begins his stealthy patrols on the slopes of Mt Suzuko, hunting for poachers. Not hunters of deer or salmon, something far more valuable – the priceless matsutake mushroom, Japan’s truffle. Like the French truffle, the matsutake has defied decades of research and attempts to cultivate it. It grows only on wild, remote mountain peaks, in dwindling numbers.

The price reflects its rarity. Last season, says Mr Shigeo Furuta, was an absolute disaster. For two months, from early September to early November, he combed the mountainside and found only one kilogram of the precious fungi. On the Tokyo markets the price soared to 70,000 yen ($A1,050) a kilo – more than$100 a mushroom.

There are other mushrooms lying in pungent piles in the shops at this time of the year – a dozen varieties of cultivated ones alone. There are the chewy brown-capped shiitake, which the Chinese dry for soup; the pale fronds of maitake, the famous “dancing mushrooms”; the white filaments of enokitake.

Then, at mountainside stalls there are baskets of lurid wild fungi: orange ones, purple ones, “rat” mushrooms, “fox’s scrotum” mushrooms, and “monkey’s stool” mushrooms harvested from high in the forest canopy, which are reputed to cure cancer.

But the matsutake is the king of the fungi in Japan.

Mr Furuta and his father before him have had the mushroom franchise on Mt Suzuko for more than 40 years. “In the old days the mountain was white with mushrooms and anyone from the village could pick them,” he says. “Not any more.”

All the mountains where matsutake grow – principally around Nagano and in the hills above Kyoto – are reserves, controlled by the national, prefectural or local governments.

Mt Suzuko, for instance, is “owned” by the little village in the valley at its foot. This year, they auctioned the rights to pick mushrooms and Mr Furuta put in a bid of Y2 million ($30,000). This means the mountain is his for the season … and woe betide any sneaky Tokyoites who are caught fossicking. Posters warn that the fine is up to Y300,000 ($4,500).

Why all the mystique? Mr Furuta offers one of the fungi, cream-coloured with shreds of brown bark-like skin clinging to it, the cap not yet opened. It resembles nothing so much as a large semi-erect penis.

Botanically, it is an Asian relative of the boletus mushroom of Europe -the Italian fungi porcini (little pigs) beloved of Florentine cuisine, or the fleshy French cepe But it has an elusive, earthy aroma, more like the white truffle of the Val D’Aosta.

So rare is it, and so expensive, that the classical way of dealing with it is dobin mushi: you shred it into a tiny earthenware teapot, along with a little chicken meat and some prawns, and steam it. Before serving, sprinkle with mitsuba (“Japanese parsley”) and a slice of yuzu, an aromatic type of lemon. You drink it from sake cups, to better savour the aroma.

Mr Furuta is sitting cross-legged in one of the most unusual restaurants to be found in Japan. Each year as August draws to a close and the matsutake begin pushing up through the pine needles, Mr Furuta erects on the hills two or three steel-framed greenhouses.

He covers the matsutake with polythene, spreads a red carpet on the rough board floors, and installs low plank tables, with a do-it-yourself gas burner in front of every place.

The set-up may be basic, but there is nothing hick about the cooking – or the prices. The top-of-the-line menu is a Y10,000 ($150) a head matsutake banquet, for which people drive from as far away as Tokyo, 150 kilometres to the south.

This year, Mr Furuta is hoping for a bumper harvest. “A bad season for rice is a good season for matsutake,” goes the saying, and this year has been the coldest, wettest summer since the war.

Unlike the truffle-hunters of the Dordogne, the matsutake hunters do not use dogs or pigs to snuffle them out – just strong legs and good eyesight, says Mr Furuta. So far (it is early October when we talk) he has found five kilograms. It is too early to tell, but perhaps, for his Y2 million investment, he may find as much as 100 kg of matsutake this year.

Wholesale prices have come down at the Tokyo markets – to a mere Y35,000 a kilo ($525) for top-grade specimens. This still translates to about $60 or $70 a mushroom by the time they are packed on a bed of pine fronds in little pine boxes in the classy department stores.

The tumbling prices are more a reflection of cheaper imports than a bumper crop. Japan has been importing matsutake from smart suppliers in Canada, North and South Korea and Morocco. Connoisseurs say the imports do not have the same fragrance, but Mr Furuta is not convinced.

“Last year, when we could find no matsutake, we did use imports. We mixed them in with local ones, and we did not tell the customers … but this year…” He does not finish the sentence, but looks up the hill where the warm mists of autumn are beginning to soak the rich mulch of pine-needles, and sniffs the air.

Is it the musky aroma of the matsutake, or a bumper crop of Y10,000 bills that fills his nostrils?

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Tuesday 19 October 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Good Living
Sub section:
Page: 30
Word count: 968
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: Mr Shigeo Furuta digs for matsutake mushrooms that bring huge prices at the markets