Culinary Smelling: Matsutake Mushroom

I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.

The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing mastutake book cover

From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.

After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.

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