These mushrooms, whose name means "pine" (matsu) and "mushroom" (take) grow under pine trees in Japan, parts of China, and the North American West Coast. They're also found in parts of Northern Europe. Sought-after and prized by the Japanese, these mushrooms can sell for up to $2000 per kilogram in Japan. Here in San Francisco, I found them going for $10 per pound. Their seasonal window is very short, usually from October to January.
Their fragrance is wonderful. It is a bit hard to describe, but it's rich and earthy, and when I had this mushroom in my fridge last week, carefully stored in a paper bag, I smelled it each time I opened the fridge door. it's rich and earthy, and like no other mushroom I've had. And it's so firm and meaty, and the taste - oh, delicious. I soaked them in a little soy sauce & sake for a hour, then fried them in some canola oil and served over rice. I wanted to keep it simple so I'd taste the mushroom without drenching it in sauces or other ingredients. I've also had these in soup while traveling in Japan.
In Japan, their arrival signals the beginning of Fall and is cause for celebration. Japanese go in the forests and collect them, then have picnics in the woods where they grill the matsutakes and drink sake. The Japanese consider the younger matsutakes - the ones whose caps haven't opened yet - to be the best. These are also the most expensive.
Matsutake populations have declined dramatically in Japan due to a nematode worm that is destroying the red pine trees that matsutakes grow under in Japan, so many matsutakes in Japan are imported.
(Image: Kathryn Hill)