A friend came to the house and invited me mushroom hunting. Matsutake hunting, that is. This guy hunts them regularly. The elusive mushroom rarely breaks the surface of the tan oak duff. The mushroom hunter showed me the slight mound of dried leaves that is the telltale sign. As we hiked and bush-wacked the hillside, we found bits and shreds of white flesh; Matsutake chewed and discarded by deer. We would do the mushroom crouch, searching for small heaps of leaves. He showed me how to reach down and pull the stipe from the ground, carefully brushing off the mycelium and with a quick and sure motion replacing the disturbed leaves. Often I would come across colorful gems white, red, gray; other fungi that we didn’t stop to identify. We were on a mission.
He showed me how the young caps with their veils intact look like toasted marshmallows. At first, I thought he was crazy, but then I could imagine the irregular brown markings as looking charred and the swollen mushroom could be a marshmallow bloated from an open fire.
The best thing about learning this art (mind you, I haven’t tasted them yet!) is the smell. Johnny mentioned it right when we started out, but I was focusing on visual cues.
I could smell something familiar, but elusive. He said it was the mycelium underground, not the mushroom itself. Then, after finding several and subconsciously taking in the fragrance, I could recognize it. He described the smell, “like cinnamon and old socks”. Bingo! To me it has the scent notes of drying valerian, (the botanical source of Valium), the cinnamon too subtle for me.
Recognizing scents is like hearing a bird-call and someone identifying the bird. If you are not primarily an auditory learner, it doesn’t lodge in the memory. When the guide translates the call and says listen for the “lee-lee-oh” all of a sudden we have something to remember.