The stuff of ancient legend and high-end cuisine, matsutake mushrooms bloom briefly in the forests of Oregon. Subsistence harvesters flock there, hoping to find buttons that can earn a fortune in Tokyo’s bustling wholesale markets, halfway across the world.
Each autumn, thousands of modern-day prospectors gather along the volcanic spine of central Oregon’s Cascade mountains in search of pay dirt.
They carry buckets and walking sticks. Like gold-rush panners of the mid-1800s, they fan out across a lonely and unforgiving landscape, returning in the evening to makeshift camps. The object of their pursuit: matsutake, a wild mushroom used in the most refined of big-city kitchens around the globe.
With a firm texture and notes of cinnamon and saffron, this fungus tastes like no other. It’s especially prized in Japan, where the name means “pine mushroom”: The flavor lends a subtle accent to rice and seasonal dishes such as dobin mushi, a seafood broth steamed in a clay teapot. Formerly abundant in the island country’s red pine forests, modern wilderness management and disease have made the mushroom scarce. As much as 90 percent of the matsutake harvested in Oregon is now exported to Japan. Before that country’s economic bubble burst, the highest-grade buttons, dressed up in a gift box with ferns and orange blossoms, could fetch upward of $100 each at auction in Tokyo’s Ota Market. No wonder pickers in the U.S. referred to the mushrooms as “white gold.”
These days foragers are fortunate to get $15 a pound. Itinerant and frequently off the grid, they are mostly refugees — from the Old Economy, from the wars in Southeast Asia, and, increasingly, from out of Central America. They make camp out of whatever they can scrounge: post-and-beam stringers cut from the woods and covered in old tarps, a Goodwill tent bought in town, rusty propane stoves and cheap coolers. A tribal sort of organization dominates, with groups of Lao, Cambodians, Hmong, and Mexicans, among others, bunking together and not together, the smoke and aromas of their kettles merging into a blue haze that drifts up through the treetops.
The season lasts just two months. Whereas an amateur might spend days or even weeks looking for a telltale rise in the duff that indicates a mushroom growing beneath the pine-needle debris, veterans have a Rolodex of conifers committed to memory, heading straight to the ones that regularly produce pounds of fungus. Earnings are determined by a forager’s skill and also by more fickle, unpredictable factors: the weather, insects, and prices paid halfway around the world. At night, while warming themselves around scattered campfires, the pickers swap stories, telling little lies to throw competitors off track. A refrigerated van hired by the buyers arrives at an ad-hoc weigh station and whisks the matsutake off to Portland, where they will be loaded on the next flight to Tokyo.