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The matsutake, or pine mushroom, is a Japanese delicacy. The “true” matsutake, tricholoma matsutake, grows only in the pine forests of Japan, although other members of the genus can be found in North America and parts of Europe. The mushroom has a distinctive spicy odor and flavor which is often showcased on fall menus in Japan. The majority of matsutakes harvested in other parts of the world are exported to Asia, where they command a high price, although they are sometimes obtainable in markets and at mushroom fairs.
The matsutake is a fruiting body of a larger organism, the mycelium. The mycelium is a mass of branching fibers underground which composes the largest part of a fungus. In the case of the matsutake, the mycelium wraps around the roots of conifer trees, trapping nutrients for the tree in exchange for a hospitable habitat. When the fungus wants to spread, it sends up fruiting bodies to spread spores. The cap of the mushroom is white, ranging from two to eight inches (five to 20 centimeters) in size. As the mushroom matures, the cap starts to form rusty discolorations, and flattens out. The gills of the mushroom are white and loosely attached to the stem, which is partially sheathed at the base. The partial sheath is all that remains of the veil of the mushroom, which also leaves a distinctive ring approximately half way up the stem.
The flesh of the matsutake is white and firm, although it may occasionally have dark brown discolorations, just like the exterior of the mushroom. The texture of the mushroom reminds many consumers of meat, and the flavor is somewhat difficult to describe: slightly meaty, spicy, and a little bit sour. The odor is distinctively spicy, although it also reminds some consumers of particularly ripe or intense cheese. The remarkable odor and flavor of the mushroom can be too much for some individuals who prefer more tamely flavored mushrooms.
In Japan, these mushrooms are considered a fall delicacy. It is widely collected in the conifer forests of that nation, although unfortunately habitat for the delicious mushroom is dwindling due to diseases among the trees it prefers to grow on. Many chefs delight in matsutake season, preparing intriguing seasonal dishes which highlight and complement the flavor of the mushroom. In Japan, these mushrooms can appear grilled, sauteed, steamed, and fried, and are paired with rice, tempura, and sushi, among many other dishes.
While the mushroom is the most flavorful fresh, it can be sliced and frozen for use within three months. Unfortunately, matsutakes do not take well to drying, and cooks will find that the scent and flavor are heavily compromised if the mushroom is dried. Because the mushrooms are difficult to store and has a very brief season, the mushroom can sometimes be difficult to find, and costly when it is obtainable. When you can get fresh matsutake mushrooms, look for firm, dry specimens, with no slimy or moist spots. Expect the cap, stem, and gills to be discolored and stained with rusty spots and streaks, and store the mushrooms in a paper bag under refrigeration for approximately one week before use. Be aware that the strong odor can carry to other foods, so make sure that the matsutakes have plenty of room in the fridge.