As I scoured the woods in a last ditch attempt to find a hen before the looming frost, I grew increasingly hopeless with each step on the raw ground. After a dry, underwhelming season, the soil was finally saturated after a week of relentless rain. If the soaking rains had come at any point throughout the summer or early fall, the woods would have been teeming with fungal diversity.
Unfortunately, the prime window for mushroom flushes has already passed. Even the hardiest fall fruiters like hen-of-the-woods are on their last legs up here in Vermont, but there are still a few treasure troves waiting to be revealed to the persistent forager. This has lent a mounting sense of urgency to my recent forays as I struggle to harvest the first proper flush of the year before it disappears into the grip of winter.
And so, there I was, still without a single hen, my socks wet and my toes starting to tingle. I spotted a promising elder statesman oak tree and I perked up with anticipation but, as has been my luck this season, it was barren. Soon the deciduous forest gave way to a dense hemlock grove, which I knew would not support hens. I considered calling it a day but I couldn’t bear returning home defeated, so I trudged on. Perhaps I would spot a few late season porcini, or at least some second rate honey mushrooms.
Sure enough, as soon I entered the dark stand of conifers, I spotted a hefty bouquet of honeys. Honeys are not bad, but I was in no mood for such pedestrian diversions. Frost was in the forecast, and if I wasn’t going to find any hens, I was determined to bring home a few more porcini before I threw up the white flag for the season. I left the honeys and figured I would harvest them on my way out if I didn’t discover any more gourmet offerings.
As the hemlock woods grew deeper and darker, the trail came out along a lazy river. Nestled in some moss among the hemlock needles, I noticed a colossal white mushroom. I had already seen quite a few acrid white Lactarius piperatus in these woods, and I assumed this was just another lousy Lactarius that could only be redeemed by the parasitic lobster mushroom. But it is too late for lobsters, so I motioned to my dog to march forward on the path as a cold breeze slapped me in the face.
This was no typical breeze – it carried the most singular and potent earthy perfume. I wondered about the source of this olfactory overload, and then I took another look at the big white mushroom that I had so hastily written off. I picked it up and took a whiff, and my nostrils began to dance. Cinnamon! Cloves! Clams! Grandma’s musty attic!
Although I had never seen them in the wild or even in the supermarket, I immediately knew what I was dealing with. These could be none other than the magnificent matsutake, so revered in Japan that a single grade A specimen with veil intact can fetch upwards of $100. The Japanese make special wooden gift boxes that hold a few prized buttons, and these are considered a corporate or wedding gift par excellence. Trichloma magnivelare, the northeastern species, is considered very close genetically to the true Japanese matsutake.
After I spent several minutes just inhaling the transcendent aroma of the massive grade B specimen, I searched the rest of the riverbank and was delighted to find that the mastutake was not alone. I found about fifteen in all, including one grade A, unopened specimen that weighed in at over half a pound.
The Japanese will pay a drastically higher price for grade A specimens with an unbroken veil, but at this stage they are usually well concealed by the duff. I was lucky enough to find several pristine buttons that were just barely popping out above the carpet of hemlock needles, and I carefully poked my finger in to pry out the partially buried stems. I left about half of the matsutake in the ground and proudly marched home, past the honey mushrooms, which now looked utterly irrelevant.
Last night we grilled them up and prepared them simply with a dash of soy sauce and lemon juice. The result? Epicurean bliss.