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There’s money in mushrooms

Flavourful fungi found in the fall forest

Foragers fill forests in fall looking for fungi

A few year’s back, about this time of year, my neighbour, who is Japanese, quietly knocked at my door to show me a small basket of mushrooms that she had harvested herself earlier that day. The mushrooms, two to three of them, as I remember, were pretty stinky, kind of like soft French cheese with a hint of spice. Matsutake mushrooms, also called pine mushrooms, are highly prized gourmet fare in Japan, especially in autumn. These mushrooms had been harvested up near Pemberton but it had been a long hard slog of a hike to get them.

Misuzu returned a little while later with a small bowl of steaming rice studded with finely sliced mushrooms. I eagerly tried them, after all such a delicacy is extremely expensive in Japan. The cooking had softened their pungent fragrance but the texture was solid, even meaty. I ate the rice and the only word I choose to accurately describe the dish is "funky". I thanked Misuzu for her generosity and admitted that I lacked a taste for the refined Japanese delicacy. I asked her to bring me along next time she went hunting for them. She laughed and said it was pretty hard to find them – best if you use your sense of smell. No kidding.

There is money to be made hunting for wild, edible mushrooms. It is a competitive business. Commercial mushroom picking in British Columbia is estimated to produce $10 million to $20 million in revenue, annually. Of the edible mushrooms harvested, pine mushrooms, which are exported to Japan, are the big ticket fungi. Chanterelles and morels, exported to Europe, can also bring in a lot of cash. Minor amounts of other edible mushrooms are also harvested.

During harvest season, roughly mid-September to mid-November, buying stations pop up wherever mushrooms are to be found and pickers head into the woods. Seasoned matsutake pickers who know what to look for and have a keen memory for harvesting areas have been known to make $1,200-$1,300 a day for literally digging around in the dirt. By following the harvest down the coast, starting in late August in Washington or Oregon, through California and into the hills of Mexico by early December, mushroom pickers have been known to make $40,000 (U.S.) for their work. "Known to make", though an arbitrary description, is nevertheless apt as the commercial market is highly volatile and completely set by the Japanese market and its demand for the import.

Japanese matsutake or Tricholoma matsutake are increasingly difficult to come by in Japan; the decline is not completely understood but is thought to be due to the change in species composition in the pine forests caused by the shift from wood to natural gas for fuel. B.C.’s pine mushroom, Tricholoma magnivelare , is closely related to the Japanese variety. Pine mushrooms are harvested in many different countries and Japan imports from all of them. Demand for the pines through the autumn season fluctuates causing the price paid per pound to jump all over the place, from as little as $2/lb. to as high as $200/lb. In 1993, one pound of pine mushrooms sold for $600 (U.S.) at auction in Tokyo and a single, top quality mushroom sold for $350 that same year. This year there is a glut on the market as North America is experiencing bumper crops. The prices have been kept low up until last week, where, at the end of the season, the demand increases along with the price – as I write this the price is $14/lb.

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