Monday, October 24, 2011

Matsutake Camp

This past weekend I traveled down to Oregon with photographer Eirik Johnson (check out his work here) to pitch my tent at a matsutake camp in the Central Cascades of Oregon, on the edge of the high windblown desert. (More on the unlikely setting later.)

We stayed at the smaller camp in the woods near Crescent Lake, where a mushroom buyer named Joy was kind enough to give us space behind his buy station. That night pickers trickled back into camp to sell their day's work to Joy, who was paying 20/20—twenty dollars a pound for both #1 and #2 matsutake buttons. The former (pictured at top) has an intact veil covering the gills—the preference of well-heeled customers in Japan, where these mushrooms were destined—while the latter is slightly marred by a small hole in the veil, as shown (barely) below if you click on the image. In any event, both grades fetch the same price in a year such as this, when the picking is poor and mushrooms are in demand.

That night we hung out by the fire with a couple pickers from Weed, California. Som, Laotian by birth, first started picking matsutake in the Crescent Lake area as a teenager with his mother. He'd been in camp since the highly regulated season opened after Labor Day. His dog Whiskey guarded the shelter by day.

Som's friend Forrest, pictured below with his day's pay, was picking for the first time since his usual construction work has dwindled. He told us the learning curve was steep—something we would learn firsthand the next day when we went picking with Joy and his kids.

Sometime after dark a refrigerated truck stopped at the buy station to collect 260 pounds of matsutake and drive it to Portland where it would be processed (cleaned and packed) and air-freighted to Japan so that the matsutake-crazed customers of that small island nation could shop for inividually-wrapped buttons at the market. Last year the nightly poundage at Joy's station might have been five times more.

I've picked plenty of matsutake in the past closer to home, which I usually cook in a traditional Japanese-style sukiyaki. But here on the edge of the desert the picking is entirely different. Whereas I look for mature fir trees in the North Cascades, most of the picking at Crescent Lake is in pine: lodgepole and ponderosa, with a smattering of Douglas-fir and true firs. In some cases the tree composition is all pine and the conditions surprisingly dry.

Matsutake, however, thrive in sandy soils, and the pumice-laden soil in this volcanically active area provides ideal habitat. Mount Mazama's eruption nearly 7,700 years ago created Crater Lake and dumped three to five feet of pumice on the surrounding hills. Though the ground appears dry and dusty, the pine needle duff holds enough moisture to promote great fruitings. Joy said that Japanese customers appreciate the chewy texture of high desert Oregon matsutake.

Picking matsutake in the pine forests around Lake Crescent on a year such as this, when the pick is small, is not for beginners like Forrest (though he was fortunate to have an expert mentor in Som). In a normal year a matsutake patch will announce itself with "flags" or "flowers"—fully emerged mushrooms that indicate the presence of smaller buttons hiding under the duff. This year even the #6 flowers were commanding a decent price, meaning everything was getting picked. And experienced pickers who knew how to find the concealed buttons were being careful to "control" their patches, as a buyer named Leo explained to me, by picking everything to eliminate any evidence of fruiting mushrooms and then visiting regularly to catch the buttons before they emerged.

Finding a matsutake button beneath the duff on a forest floor otherwise devoid of any sign of fungi, indeed a floor without a single mushroom anywhere in sight, is an art form. Joy showed us how it was done. He carefully scanned the ground of a known patch before pausing over what to me was an imperceptible rise in the duff. Using a metal staff that resembled a tire iron, he scraped away a small amount of forest debris to reveal the white cap of a matsutake button. He picked it stem and all without trimming anything (Japanese customers want the dirt attached at the end, as this signifies life force). Later, when I tried to find matsutake on my own in a stretch of woods filled with pickers, I got completely blanked.

Unlike Joy, Som, and Forrest, who prefer camping in the woods, most of the pickers and buyers are now based out of the town of Chemult, 20 miles down the road from Crescent Junction, where several business owners in town rent space for mushroom camps. Pickers and buyers have moved here in recent years to avoid onerous fees levied first by the Forest Service and now Hoodoo, a private concessionairre. Hoodoo has since cut its prices, but it may be too late to lure the pickers away from the comforts of town, which include electricity and nearby groceries.

Margins are thin in the wild mushroom trade and costs can be shaved in other interesting ways. One buyer in Chemult operated out of a shipping container.

We were lucky enough to visit the night of a big celebration in support of a Buddhist temple in Springfield, Oregon, where many of the Southeast Asian pickers live. Lao, Hmong, Mien, and Cambodian pickers celebrated by slaughtering a cow and then feasting on a dinner of beef tripe soup, beef larb, sticky rice, and barbecued ribs. A Laotian pop star stopped by en route during a U.S. concert tour to entertain. Even Buddhist monks were on hand to offer blessings.

Much has been said about the Wild West nature of the Crescent Lake and Chemult matsutake scene. Indeed, I heard many stories around the fire, stories for another time. Suffice it to say that I was impressed by the skill of the pickers and the sense of community that attends this unusual stop on the mushroom trail.


Jill said...

How interesting! I love that you got to be a part of the SE Asian community/festival. A pop singer! I've heard wonderful things about Laos. Anyway, I noticed last year driving between Arlington and Darrington that the pickers along the roadside seemed to all be Asian.

That said, I still recall a terrible story when I was a kid in Oregon - a party from Portland went picking mushrooms, had a dinner party, then 5 died that night the the other had to have a liver transplant. This was way back in the 1970s so I don't remember the details, but I swore i would never eat a wild mushroom. I've relented over the years and enjoy chanterelles, morels, porcini, etc. and haven't heard any similar horror stories for years - have you? BTW - another HVC mention on my latest blog post...

Langdon Cook said...

Jill - Many of the pickers on the PNW mushroom trail are of SE Asian heritage, presumably because they come from cultures in which foraging is a regular feature of life. As to poisoning deaths, it's important to remember the forager's golden rule: never eat anything you can't ID with 100% certainty. Glad to hear you're enjoying wild mushrooms despite your initial trepidation. It's not difficult to learn a few delicious species.

Natalie Kryger said...

I just found your blog after hearing you on KUOW this morning. All I can say is that I think I have found a new favorite read. I am nursing a terrible cold this morning, my cabin is cold, my four sons are ornery, and it is gorgeous outside. I am so grateful for such a great read this morning to take my mind off of all the things I am missing. I live in the cascade foothills out of Snoqualmie (rattlesnake mountain). We are the only people on this side of the mountain, and we love to forage. Thanks for all of the inspiration.

mork the delayer said...

For 10 years I lived in Seattle where foraged mushrooms are available in favorable seasons at the closest farmers' market.
When I moved to Providence, RI last July, nothing of the sort was available here.
As I have started selling vegetables at the market, I have had the opportunity to market a little bit of fungi as well. The maitake season was pretty great this year, and I made them available for a good month at the market I sell at.

Neil | Butterfield said...

Interesting post. You have posted some stunning pictures here. Thank you for sharing with us.

Ruth Trowbridge said...

Awesome post as always - we had only 5 mushrooms this year - hope they are all hiding for next year - peace

Anonymous said...

Buddhist monks slaughter cows to celebrate? I guess they're no less hypocritical than the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

And seriously! How is it that all these feel-good foragers and vegetable renaissance men pull off rejoicing in the earth's bounty or whatever twaddle we're presently using to sell a plate of carrots decorated in 'soil' for $40 by killing a cow? I'm sorry but what a load of bollocks. This back to nature crap. All a bunch of self-serving shite.

Unknown said...

Your book was a huge inspiration. I'm from Australia and headed to Oregon this coming weekend as I hope to catch the end of Matsutake season. Plan to head to Chemult/Crescent Lake/Winema National Forest. Hope to catch some of this in full swing... meet some pickers and find some wild mushrooms myself! Jason