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Rich Pickings

Autumn 2022

One of the world’s most sought-after mushrooms, the small but mighty matsutake, has transformed Bhutan’s rural economies and city tourism. But it almost didn’t happen. Following the mushroom from the forest floor to the plates of the kingdom’s high-end restaurants reveals much about the opportunities it’s created – and the challenges it faces.

It’s 3am, and friends Rinzin Choden and Rinzin Pemo are about to start their trek from their village of Ura to the forest-cloaked mountains that skirt their valley. Ura, in Bumthang District, is still dark – with the kind of darkness that’s vanishingly rare in our light-polluted age – and the forests they’re heading into are even darker. In their homes they drink butter tea and pull on their boots before setting off together.

Across the village, others will be stirring for the same reason: they’re all heading out in search of the sangay shamu, or matsutake mushroom. It’s one of the world’s most expensive mushrooms, and the two Rinzins want to be among the first up the mountain to find it.

Matsutake season runs from July to about mid-September, depending on when the rains arrive. During these few weeks, mushroom pickers might make up to 40% of their annual income and, as our local host, Sonam Pelden, laughs, it’s “first come, first served!”

From maligned mushroom to fungi fame

Like many things in Bhutan, serendipity had a hand in the story of the matsutake. Mushrooms have always played a role in local diets and medicine – in markets and on roadsides, villagers sell chanterelles, shiitake and coral mushrooms from overflowing bags. In rural areas, during winter, when there’s little that can be picked fresh, mushrooms that were dried during the summer are a staple vegetable. But in most regions in Bhutan – including around Ura and the village of Genekha, where it grows in the wild – the matsutake was for some time either unknown, unvalued, or both.

Then, one day in 1988, a woman called Aum Kuchum took her freshly picked mushrooms from her tiny hamlet of Zamto, just outside Genekha, to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, to sell at market. A Japanese tourist wandering past her stall was astonished to recognise the prized matsutake among her haul. Quick to spot the opportunity, villagers were harvesting the matsutake for commercial sale just a year later and the mushroom itself – until then locally nicknamed po shamu because of its resemblance to a phallus – was rechristened as sangay shamu, or Buddha’s mushroom. Its transformation complete, it was soon being picked and boxed up by the kilo and flown to fungi fans in Japan.

In Ura, matsutake picking started about 20 years ago. Before that, Sonam says, “people really didn’t know whether it was edible or not. These ones – the shiitake and matsutake – we actually kicked [for fun] in the olden days!” Today, it’s a serious business. Until last year, anyone could come to Ura to search for the matsutake. But from 2022, Sonam tells us, mushroom hunters must have a special permit, and only local people can apply for one.

The subtle – and sustainable – art of picking

Watching Rinzin (Sonam’s sister) and her friend moving quietly through the now-daylit forest, their care for the fragile ecosystem here is clear – and essential. “In Japanese,” says Sonam, “matsutake means ‘pine mushroom’. It grows underneath pine, oak or spruce. So when you collect it you have to move the leaf litter to expose the topsoil. Some people who come from outside [Ura] don’t care, so they just leave the topsoil bare. Then the mushroom won’t grow next year.” 

Rinzin Choden and Rinzin Pemo are picking quietly through the undergrowth, being careful not to damage the asters or disturb any ground-nesting bees. There’s no visible evidence of the many times they’ve trodden this route before. Experts like the Rinzins “have places where mushrooms grow that nobody can reach”, Sonam says. But eventually we do – and Rinzin Choden spots a mushroom. It’s a good size, well over the minimum size for picking prescribed by the government. So she delicately pushes back the carpet of pine needles surrounding the matsutake before gently levering it out with a stick, careful not to gouge the soil. She brushes the pine needles carefully back into place.

They keep going; in the brief season they do this for five hours each day. There’s a lot of forest to cover. There are usually four of them working together, for safety. “It’s very risky. This is the time for Asiatic bears,” Sonam says.

Mushrooming opportunities

The mushroom goes into the basket Rinzin Choden is carrying on her back. Its appearance is fairly unremarkable – a thick-stemmed brown mushroom with a slightly bulbous head. It is its aroma (fruity and pungent) and flavour (slightly peppery and astringent) that make it as sought-after as the truffle – and almost as expensive. It can fetch well over US$1,000 per kilo and as much as $4,000, but $500 a kilo is a good average price.

According to Sonam, the matsutake harvest now generates 20-30% of Ura’s mushroom pickers’ income. It was previously a much higher proportion, but that’s because the money they’ve made from mushrooms has been ploughed into diversifying, lest the fungi prove fickle. In Bhutan’s other key matsutake-producing area, Genekha, two decades ago, more than 90% of villagers’ income was derived from matsutake. That money enabled some transformative investments. “They were roofing their houses, building houses, buying oxens, cows,” says Dawa Penjor, a specialist and adviser at the kingdom’s National Mushroom Centre. During a visit to Genekha, Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, noted that overreliance on a single income stream was a risky strategy. Since then, villagers in Ura and Genekha have been helped to invest in better equipment and develop other lucrative crops. “By 2007, the matsutake income was 70%, 60% [of the village’s total earnings],” Dawa says.

Besides selling the mushroom, Ura’s inhabitants saw another opportunity in the matsutake. In 2009, the village launched its annual mushroom festival. For three days, it hosts visitors keen for a taste of life in this tranquil and astonishingly beautiful valley. They come from all over the world to taste the matsutake, see traditional folk dances and try their hand at finding the elusive fungi themselves. Genekha followed suit in 2015. Local people prepare and sell hot food and crafts, creating another valuable source of income.

Timing-wise, it couldn’t be better. For the pickers, mushroom season fits neatly into the seasonal period of little work, and little harvesting, on the villages’ farms. “It’s a convenient substitution,” Dawa says. “In summer it rains quite a lot and they’re not able to work in the field. Basically they’re free. The mushrooms occupy their time as well as supplementing income. So it’s very important.” For visitors the festivals are “a must”, he says, offering a chance to see Bhutan’s colourful mask dances during a month when they don’t ordinarily take place. “It’s so important for the tourism industry, and important for Bhutan to showcase our traditions and culture. And it’s important for the community. They can make some money from these festivals – as well as enjoy showing off their new dress!” Dawa smiles. The finery he’s referring to is, of course, financed by the matsutake harvest.

Flying high on mushrooms

These relatively inconspicuous mushrooms have transformed Ura, Sonam says. “Because I’ve been here since childhood, I know exactly how many changes have been brought here [by the mushroom economy]. Just, like, using utensils in the kitchen. Before the matsutake, we didn't have flushing toilets. We only had wooden shutters in the olden days, now we have glass windows. It boosted income – that’s been the most important thing for the local people.”

The opportunities in Ura have stemmed the flow of villagers moving to towns in search of better earnings. “The people here now think that village life is much better than town life! Now local people are richer than the town people,” he laughs. “The Layaps are much richer than the people in Thimphu!” In the northwestern village of Laya, locals make so much money selling cordyceps – a parasitic fungus that grows on the larvae of insects in high mountain areas – they are rumoured to use helicopters for jaunts to the capital.

But the future worries him.

The high cost of a changing climate

The matsutake, and the oysters, chanterelles, boletes and corals that also grow here, are perfectly suited to Ura. They require mixed, but predominantly pine, forests, precise humidity, consistent rainfall and predictable soil conditions. At 3,100 metres above sea level, its forests of mostly Bhutan, blue and chir pine grow in the poor, acidic soil favoured by fungi, watered in summer by monsoonal rains. But Ura’s climate is changing.

“It’s getting hotter. And there’s a change in the range of summer, winter and autumn seasons. There are longer summers and less winter. Winters used to be so cold, now they’re not that cold. Plants and flowers that haven’t grown here before do now. Those are the changes we can already see,” Sonam says. This has some interesting upsides: increasing temperatures mean maize, which has never grown at this altitude before, can now be cultivated. But for many indigenous crops, it’s deadly. A few years back, all the bamboo in the forest above Ura died off. “Bamboo weaving was one of the best income generators here, but now we don’t have it.” And, he says, high-maintenance mushrooms are especially vulnerable. “If the heat increases then definitely this mushroom won’t be able to grow. The fungus will die.”

If that happens, the consequences for the forest itself could be dire, Dawa explains. “Wild mushrooms grow in symbiosis with trees, high trees,” he says. “The trees supply the mushroom with excess sugar and the mushrooms collect water and minerals from the environment for the trees. They increase the trees’ surface area for absorption. Without the mushrooms, trees won’t grow properly, or will grow very slowly.” In a country that’s as forest-focused as Bhutan, that’s a major concern.

Sonam says: “The only thing we can do is cross our fingers. You know, Bhutan is covered by forests. Bhutan is carbon negative. We are doing our part. But it won’t last if other countries are not.”

Worth savouring – and saving

For now, though, the matsutake is here. For Bhutan’s top chefs, and international gourmands, that’s reason to celebrate. In the kingdom’s stunning resort of Como Uma Paro, chef Tshering Lhaden is putting together a special menu showcasing the matsutake mushroom in all its fleeting glory. The first plate off the pass is a riot of bright flavour and texture: paper-thin slices of raw matsutake are draped atop a cracker of deep-fried fermented cheese, alongside toasted pistachios, fava beans, sliced green peach, gremolata and micro herbs from the hotel’s organic kitchen garden. Next up is Chef Tshering’s contemporary take on traditional buckwheat noodles – here, served cold and tossed with Szechuan pepper, green chilli, tempered local butter, dill and flash-fried matsutake. And finally, a thick round of Australian steak fried in local butter, topped with slices of grilled matsutake and fresh herb pesto. In the circular warm wood and glass dining room, international guests finally get to taste the matsutake they’ve travelled so far for. With a 270-degree view of wispy clouds snagging on treetops further down the lush Paro valley, it’s a moment that’s worth the near-year-long wait for the season.

Just like in the forests themselves, the mushrooms are intricately connected – to Bhutan’s people, its villages, and its finest restaurants. Although only in the nation’s consciousness for a short time, it’s nourished its economy, quality of life, and culinary reputation beyond all recognition – just as it nourishes the kingdom’s famous forests. For one small, once-ignored mushroom, that’s quite an achievement – and one that we should celebrate, while doing our utmost to protect.

Tshering Lhaden, Executive Chef at the COMO, lived and worked all over the world before returning to serve up the best of Bhutan's food culture, and the finest fusion food picked up on her travels, at COMO Uma Paro's Bukhari restaurant. Here, she shares her favourite personal recommendations for enjoying a true taste of Bhutan.

Where to shop

If you'd like to try cooking the matsutake – or any of the other wonderful mushrooms we have here – the best place to find them in Thimphu is Centenary Farmers' Market.

Where to stay

I may be biased, but for true luxury and contemporary style, the COMO Uma Paro is exceptional. I also really like to stay at family-run heritage houses such as Tshomo Farmhouse in Dorjibi and Pem Village Homestay in Gangtey – they're full of history and remind me of my childhood.

Where to eat

My favourite places to eat are restaurants that feature traditional homestyle cooking where the recipes are long forgotten or difficult to find. Babesa Village Restaurant in Thimphu is a must-visit for anyone keen to sample truly authentic Bhutanese dishes, or try traditional hoentey momos at Haa Valley, which you can find just near Gongzim Ugyen Dorji Central School.

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