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No Ordinary Mushroom: Matsutake in BC

By Paul Pryce

There is something growing in British Columbia’s forests, which, while not quite worth its weight in gold, will certainly fetch a handsome price in Asia-Pacific markets.

Matsutake, also known as pine mushrooms (or tricholoma magnivelare), are highly sought-after in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisine. Known for its distinct spicy aroma, these mushrooms sold for approximately $53 per pound in 2016. Although China’s demand for these mushrooms is mostly satisfied by the domestic harvest, Japan produces just 24 tonnes of matsutake each year, which accounts for roughly 1.5% of the country’s total consumption. As such, Japan is highly dependent on imports from the Pacific Northwest, specifically California, Oregon, Washington, and to some extent BC.

Despite a long history of mushroom picking in BC, there is a relative lack of formal industry and exports are only intermittent. As such, BC was not in a position to capitalize on an opportunity to step up exports to Japan in 2007, when imports of matsutake from North Korea were halted amid economic sanctions against the so-called “Hermit Kingdom”. In comparison, a nascent industry is forming in northern Saskatchewan, where companies like Prairie Infusions harvest and export matsutake and other mushroom products. A formal industry with a clear export strategy is needed if BC is to take full advantage of any future market disruptions, especially as other jurisdictions strive to develop reputations for quality matsutake.

There has been some experimentation in Japan and the United States with fungal bed cultivation methods for matsutake and the related hon-shimeji mushroom. This involves a culture medium prepared by mixing sawdust with such nutrient sources as rice bran or wheat bran. While some success artificially growing mushrooms in this way has been reported, it has largely not caught on and the matsutake sold in the Asia-Pacific remains wild and handpicked. Given this, the high prices seen in 2016 will likely persist in the coming years, or even rise if demand takes hold elsewhere for the unique flavour of this mushroom.

Note: Unless you are very experienced in mushroom picking, please do not seek out wild matsutake yourself. These mushrooms can be easily confused with a variety poisonous to humans (amanita smithiana).

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