On the Trail of a Scented Piece of Gold

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On the Trail of a Scented Piece of Gold

When I was growing up, every year about this time, as the air finally began to cool down but before it grew too cold, my mother would sternly warn all members in our family: "Don't touch the mushrooms." In the refrigerator, neatly wrapped inside white cotton and sitting on a bed of pine needles, she had stored a collection of precious pine mushrooms. On the outside of the box, fearing someone might steal a mushroom, she carefully wrote "9" or "6" or whatever number remained inside.

My mother was the only person who was allowed to handle those edible treasures, and she guarded them zealously. Eventually, she would remove the pine needles to take a good look and choose the best mushroom. She washed it and then lightly skinned it with a knife, baring the creamy flesh.

If my mother cooked the mushroom, she did it minimally. She used a flat stone grill and fried the slices for less than a minute. The sauce was usually made of natural salt and sesame oil, and the plate was decorated with freshly cut pine needles. She never placed anything that bore strong spices near the pine mushrooms, concerned it might interfere with the pure aroma.

Believing that pine mushrooms taste best fresh, my mother used only kkotsogeum, or sea salt, to bring out that taste. She would dip the mushroom lightly in the salt and toss it into her mouth. When she handed me one, I did the same.

The soft white flesh silently melted between my teeth and every chew yielded a spicy pine scent, a somewhat bitter-flat, earthy hint from the fungi, a sweet fragrance from the pine needle juice and, finally, a nutty aftertaste from the pine nuts. The texture was so dense, so fine, it crumbled like milk chocolate. But it was chewy, like the most tender and rare meat, and juicy like the fat part of a ripe fruit.

Ever since those days I became obsessed with the intoxicating taste of pine mushrooms. One day, I vowed, I would go into the wilds to find them.

Pine mushrooms, to me, are as wonderful as French truffles. Indeed, they are nearly as expensive. Fresh, top-grade pine mushrooms picked in Korea range from 600,000 won to 750,000 won ($461-$576) per kilogram in some Seoul department stores.

The pine mushroom (armillaria ponderosa) is called song-i beoseot in Korean, or matsutake in Japanese. Highly valued throughout Asia, the mushroom is often called the "gold in the woods" or the "king of mushrooms." This particular mushroom symbolizes strength and vigor, and is often used in important family occasions or ceremonial gatherings.

Pine mushrooms sprout naturally at the root of the red pine tree, typically trees older than 50 years. Like truffles, pine mushrooms cannot be farmed, and they require an optimal combination of temperature, light, breeze and moisture in the natural outdoors. Prime harvesting time is between late September and mid-October. They are found throughout northeast Asia, in China, Japan and Korea; however, Korean pine mushrooms are considered the best because of their strong and rich aroma and taste. Ancient journals record the medicinal qualities of the pine mushroom. Pine mushrooms are free of chemicals and possess many vitamins, minerals and protein. They are believed to be good remedies for tonsillitis and mastitis, and even can be an effective cure for some forms of cancer.

The majority of Korean pine mushrooms are produced in three locations: Yangyang county in Kangwon province, Uljin and Bonghwa in North Kyongsang province.

Filled with strong childhood memories, I decided to go to Yangyang, which is closer to Seoul and generally considered the best mushroom area. It took nearly four hours by bus to make the long journey into the rolling hills and wooded mountains of Kangwon province.

The Yangyang Songi Mushroom Festival Committee, located on the second floor of the Yangyang County Office, arranges mushroom-picking events on a daily basis. Hwang Sung-gun, a staff member of the festival's planning team, arranged a tour for me.

Mr. Hwang said I would be joining Japanese tourists, all men in their late 50s and early 60s, along with a guide, a Korean woman, who traveled from Seoul to Yangyang for the event.

Before getting in the van, Mr. Hwang collected 15,000 won from each person. He said it was the entrance fee to the pine mushroom site.

Mazao Iwada, 51, a Japanese tourist, told me, "I came here because I can't find any place in Japan where I can pick pine mushrooms." Masamichi Sakamoto, 63, said, the mushrooms were very expensive in Japan, costing over 50,000 yen ($413) per kilogram in department stores, and he hoped to buy better-tasting ones at cheaper prices in Yangyang.

The driver of our van traveled for about a half-hour outside the town, and then about 15 more minutes along an unpaved road. On foot, Mr. Hwang led us to a scenic valley, dense with red pine trees. Some areas were lined with a red packing string, and Mr. Hwang said that those areas belonged to private owners.

Stopping for a moment, Mr. Hwang shouted something into the woods and a woman's muffled voice yelled back.

"It's OK to go inside," Mr. Hwang said smiling.

From his backpack, he handed each of us a pair of white cotton gloves, a wooden stick and a red baseball cap bearing the mushroom festival mascot. We were advised to put on the gloves immediately to protect our hands from the tough climb ahead. This was no idle warning - we faced rickety bridges, lung-searingly steep hills covered in thorny bushes and rocks as slippery as grease slides.

After about a 15-minute walk, seemingly out of nowhere a small Korean woman of about 60 appeared. She was beaming and laughing loudly at our stumbling and tripping. She wore a pair of dusty, black rubber boots and a baseball cap, acting like the boss of the mountain.

"Chu Jeong-ja," said Mr. Hwang. "She owns the land here. She'll help us find the mushrooms."

We definitely needed help. On our own, we had found only dirt and pine needles. But almost immediately, Ms. Chu, her eyesight still keen, pointed out a tiny mound to Haruzou Takaya, a gray-haired tax consultant. Ms. Chu carefully removed a pile of dry black needles to reveal a soft brown top. Everyone gasped: A pine mushroom! Our first of the day!

Just as Mr. Takaya reached for the mushroom, Ms. Chu yelled, "No, no, no! You're going to break it!" She took the wooden stick from Mr. Takaya's hand and showed him how to dig out the mushroom. A powerful but quick shove under the mushroom with the stick, and she hoisted the bottom of the mushroom. The mushroom revealed its whole body - brown and smooth, snapped neatly at the root. The old woman picked it up, dusted it off and handed it over to Mr. Takaya, whose eyes were wide. "You see," she said, "finding a pine mushroom is like searching for gold in a desert. To be successful, you have to pay extra attention."

Pausing for a moment, Ms. Chu said, "I keep this mountain open all-year around," she said proudly. "I make sure that mushrooms grow well by lightly scraping the ground with my hands so that needles don't pile up too much. After picking a mushroom, I pat down the area so that more can sprout." She has been doing this since she was18.

During the peak season, Ms. Chu and her husband camp out on the mountain and pick mushrooms. On average, they pick about 5 to 10 kilograms per day from their 2.8 hectares, earning up to 10 million won in a month. But, this year, she said they did not pick so much because of the drought in the summer.

With Ms. Chu's help, I found three mushrooms. The first had a fully spread cap. "Too mature," Ms. Chu said dismissively. She then helped me unearth another. This mushroom was very small, its cap only slightly spread. Ms. Chu shook her head. Finally, the third mushroom was much smoother, its cap tightly closed.

Ms. Chu nodded. "Much better," she said.

Being careful not to crush the three mushrooms I was holding, I slid down the hill, my back nearly touching the ground.

At the bottom, Mr. Hwang stood waiting. He took out a small scale from the van and began weighing all the mushrooms that all of us had collected.

Everyone watched, slightly puzzled. Mr. Hwang explained that the price of pine mushrooms is adjusted daily between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to the official price list issued by the local governing authority. From his pocket he pulled an official list and began calculating the estimated price of the mushrooms. "You don't have to buy it," he continued and asked the Korean guide to translate into Japanese. "If you want to buy it now, it's cheaper here than the marketplace in the village."

Hesitation filled the mountain air. Few of us had realized that we had to buy the mushrooms we picked in the wilds. I think all of us thought the 15,000 won entrance fee covered everything.

Ms. Chu, the mountain-keeper, wanted to sell more, so she opened the plastic bag she had been carrying. Inside she had a heap of fresh pine mushrooms she had picked that day.

"Come to my house," she announced. "I have soju there."

The van driver took us to a cottage about five minutes down the hill. Inside, Ms. Chu took out a pocketknife and cut up a small mushroom on a plate. She brought out a dipping sauce, a mixture of salt and roasted sesame seeds. "Please," she said, offering all of us a shot of soju or wild berry wine.

For the next few minutes no one spoke. We were, I sensed, simply stunned by the magnificent taste. Finally, the Japanese men overcame any thoughts about cost and began discussing how many mushrooms they would buy.

Finishing up what was left on the plate, I decided I had to take some home with me, too. One kilogram of top-quality pine mushrooms costs a whopping 439,000 won (the price varies from day to day; it drops after the Chuseok holidays). Mr. Hwang insisted that this figure was the wholesale price, a real bargain.

"If you go to a Seoul department store," he said, "you'll pay more than double."

Though I had worried about the money, I decided to forget the price. Where else could I get such good and fresh mushrooms? I knew if I passed this up, I would regret it later.

I looked into my wallet. I could only afford about a half kilogram, and if I spend all that money, then no lunch, no dinner and I would have to walk to Seoul.

None of that mattered, I finally decided. Not when I remembered a little girl whose mother gave her daughter her first pine mushroom. I simply had to have another bite.

The Yangyang Songi Mushroom Festival starts on Saturday and runs through Wednesday. The festival features mushroom digging excursions with a professional guide, tasting events, various arts and cultural events and a street parade. For more information or inquiries, visit the county's official Web site in English (www.knto.or.kr/english/event/event_2001/event_2001_23.htm) or homepage (www.song-i.or.kr), or contact Hwang Sung-gun at the Yangyang-gun office (033-670-2239).

How to prepare extra-fresh pine mushrooms (and save money, too)

During the peak season, a plate of pine mushrooms at a restaurant can be remarkably expensive. Buying them at a supermarket or a department store, however, can save you about 50 percent. At Kyongdong Market, one kilogram of fresh pine mushroom costs between 100,000 won and 160,000 won, depending on the quality.

The best way to try fresh pine mushrooms at home is to serve them fresh with a simple dipping sauce, such as a mixture of salt and roasted sesame seeds or oil.

To grill pine mushrooms, wash them as quickly as possible in running water. Skin it with a sharp knife and slice 2 to 3 millimeters wide lengthwise.

Over a high flame or on hot stone grill, cook the mushrooms for less than 1 minute. Serve immediately with a dipping sauce. Garnish with freshly cut pine needles.

If you want to add in your soup or stew, put the mushrooms in right before serving and boil only briefly, so that they maintain flavor.


Down in Uljin County, the Fun of a Fungus

by Lee Sang-min

Contributing Writer

Uljin county in North Kyongsang province, boasts the largest production of pine mushrooms in Korea. Last year the county produced about 73 tons of pine mushrooms, or 23 percent of the Peninsula's total output.

Mushrooms naturally grown in the pinewoods of the county are known for their rich flavor, and are protected by their firm skins.

This weekend the county will hold its annual festival in honor of the famed fungus. There will be a variety of events promoting the locally grown mushrooms, including many opportunities to smell and to taste.

The fair will start with a sansinje - a ritual offering to the local mountain god for a good harvest. Among subsequent events will be demonstrations on how to select the best pine mushrooms. There will also be nong-ak-nori peasant dance performances.

Festival visitors can participate in hands-on activities by fashioning faux pine mushrooms out of pinewood or colorful play-clay. Guests can also sample mouth-watering mushroom dishes at a cooking competition Saturday.

For those who want to pick the mushrooms, a tour to a nearby pine grove costs 10,000 won per person, and is a must.

To learn how mushrooms grow, visit the pine mushroom exhibition hall, which is stocked with pictures, models and real mushrooms.

Other highlights include fireworks and a concert on Saturday evening and performances of Korean traditional music on Sunday.

For more information, visit www.uljin.kyongbuk.kr or call 054-785-6312.


by Ines Cho

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