White Gold Fever
One morning in late fall I met up with chef Rob Evans and his partner, Nancy Pugh, in front of Hugo's, their Portland restaurant. We stood around in the cold air, looking up at a sky that threatened rain, sipping coffee. We were waiting for "the man," who would take us to "the place" — a trek into the woods in search of a very special mushroom.
The man is Rick Tibbets, a diminutive forty-seven-year-old former chef of compact build who looked intensely fit as he got out of his car a few minutes later.Intensely fit, yes, but also just plain intense, a dark-haired, dark-eyed bundle of restless energy as he bounced up and down on the balls of his feet and urged us to get moving. As I would soon find out, Rick does everything fast: he thinks fast, talks fast, and, especially, hikes fast, even up the steepest of hills.
I had first met Rick the previous spring, when he had stopped by Fore Street Restaurant in Portland to deliver an armful of the first wild greens of the season — wild sorrel, lamb's-quarters, and tiny milkweed buds that day — which would appear in almost their natural state on the plates of Sam Hayward's diners that night. That is Rick's job from April to November: he is a professional forager, going out into the fields and forests all over New England, from the Berkshires to the White Mountains, to the Rangeley Lakes region and Down East, to harvest the wild bounty of the land. In spring and early summer, this can be every kind of green in its short season — stinging nettles, wild chives, fiddleheads, Solomon's seal, ginseng and sassafras roots, ramps (a wild leek), white carrots. Beginning in June and running through the first hard frosts, he gathers an incredible variety of wild mushrooms, from delicate red chanterelles, butter and oyster mushrooms, to porcini, orange chanterelles, hedgehogs, hen-of-the-woods, black-trumpets, and a whole host of others I had never heard of before. This late in the season, we were after the white gold of the woods, a mushroom so highly prized, so unusual in its flavor, so hard to find — and so expensive — that Rick calls it "the truffle of Maine."
We were in search of the matsutake (pronounced maht-zoo-TAK-ay). As its Japanese name indicates, it is a mushroom highly prized by Asians and with a long and rich tradition in that culture, where it is celebrated for its spiritual as well as culinary benefits. Depending on its scarcity, the Asian markets have been known to pay from twenty to forty dollars a pound for it wholesale, which is why you almost never see it featured on restaurant menus here. Although Rick counts many of the best restaurants in Maine as his clients (Primo, Hugo's, The White Barn Inn, the Harraseeket Inn, Café Uffa, among others), the matsutake he saves for his special customers, chefs like Rob and Sam who appreciate its unique flavor and who love surprising their guests with an unusual delicacy unusually prepared.
A few moments after Rick's arrival, we were heading into the mountains, a place whose name I can't reveal except to say that it was so secret that it had taken the special pleading of Rob and Nancy to wangle me an invitation. The night before, on the phone with Rick, I had made the mistake of asking him casually where exactly we were going. He sighed. "Michael," he said after a long pause, "I could tell you . . . but then I'd have to kill you." Although he was joking, it was my first lesson about foragers: they are close-mouthed, and necessarily so as their living depends on the long, slow accumulation of special, very intimate knowledge — the season and especially the location of foods that cannot be cultivated, only found in the wild.
A few hours later, miles from any village, river, or other landmark, Rick pulled off the road. As we got out and put on our boots and knapsacks, Nancy grinned and spread her arms to the heavens. The clouds had vanished, leaving in their place a blue sky and bright sun, which prompted Rob to grumble, "We could have ridden the bike!" Rob the chef magically turns into Rob the secret motorhead on his days off, and, indeed, he and Nancy, both in dark shades, jeans, and jean jackets, Nancy with a bright green kerchief holding back her long dark tresses, would not have looked out of place on a Harley that day.
Rick was again hurrying us along, this time up the steep bank on one side of the road and into the woods. There was no trail, no marked entrance, and, for the rest of the day I would find my head swiveling this way and that, trying to figure out how Rick knew where he was and where he was going.
"If you see moss, is that a good indication of where you'll find them?" Rob asked as we started to climb through tangles of blueberry and accumulated deadfall, over large granite boulders slippery with lichen.
"No." Rick answered. "Mushrooms grow where they want to grow, where they feel comfortable being." And with that Zen-like remark, he doubled his pace straight up the face of the steep slope, the rest of us huffing and puffing behind. Almost at the top he stopped and looked around. "So how did you find this place?" I asked him. "Well, I started about ten miles back that way," he answered, pointing down the long valley that spread out below us. "I'm not religious or anything, but something points me in the right direction. See, here," he said, pointing to the trees at the top of the slope, "here the trees go into beech and oak, no hemlock, so I'm not going to bother going any farther." Later, he would explain that many mushrooms grow in symbiosis on the roots of trees, but only certain trees. This is why Rick carries binoculars, to survey the surrounding landscape and sometimes a GPS when he is scouting new territory.
Of course, as he'll tell you, it's not just knowing the trees, but the orientation of the land to wind and sun, the makeup of the soil, the drainage, and especially the weather. "If it rains for three days in July," he told me, "I know ten spots where I can go a week later for lobster mushrooms." And no, he won't tell you where those spots are even if he will reveal very generally his methods.
Rick hopped a few hundred feet back down the slope and waited for us to gather around. "Now we start at the bottom, and first you look up the mountain and let your eyes kind of try to see them against the ground. They like the slopes at this time of year, and you find them in groups, growing in a line or a circle. They look like little white heads popping up out of the moss. See? They're all over the place!" We didn't. He pointed, then walked a half-dozen paces to one side and bent over a sparse bed of moss and rock, out of which barely protruded what looked like several pale round lumps. He pulled out a knife, knelt, dug carefully down, and then held out his palm to us.
On it lay the first matsutake of the day, a white stalk about an inch and a half in diameter and about four inches long that bulged out into a wider knob at one end. The knob was almost beige and covered with darker scales. "This is what we call a #1," the highest and most expensive grade. "See, the cap," he touched the knob, "hasn't begun to open up yet." As the mushroom matures, the cap changes shape, spreading out from a dome to a flatter circle, with gills on its underside and a thin veil stretching from its edge to the stem. He pointed to a ring of light flesh just under the cap. "That's the veil, which hasn't come out yet. A #2, it's just started to open, and you can see the veil." He knelt again and cut a few more, leaving the smallest and carefully tamping the dirt back into each hole and replacing the moss after he removed each one. "That way there'll be more next year."
"The #1s are more pungent, spicy," Rob explained, "the ones that are more opened up, the #3s and #4s, they're more user-friendly," with a milder flavor and less intense smell, he meant, and therefore more appealing to those, like myself, who were used to the more earthy, darker flavors of mushrooms like porcinis and portobellos. We passed the matsutake from hand to hand, and when my turn came, I lifted it to my nose and inhaled deeply. It had a very rich, very intense, almost spicy smell that reminded me distantly of exotic spices like asafetida, cumin, mustard seed, and nutmeg, the whole overlaid with a hint of those heavy perfumes made of things like camphor, musk, patchouli, or sandalwood.
"I'm going to go up higher and grab some up there. You guys think you can find some down here?" he asked mockingly.
"The first time Rick brought us here," Rob explained, "we couldn't find anything! So he drew a big circle on the ground and told us to stand in it."
"Well, they weren't finding them very well. They needed the help."
"We still couldn't find any," Nancy added, laughing, "And it turned out Rob was standing on one!"
"I treasure the ones I find without you pointing them out to me." Rob cracked. We found another bed, and, when I looked up, Rick had vanished. "They're not like chanterelles," Rob said as we worked, digging down around the stems and slicing them off below the level of the soil. "When you find one, you find a bunch, and they're big and heavy, too."
This was true, as, a few hours later, we retraced our steps to the car, two plastic shopping bags bulging with the results of our labor, more than thirty pounds of matsutake. "It's my favorite mushroom to cook with," Rob was saying as we slaked our thirst. "It's different from every other, the king of mushrooms, and from Maine. To have something so decadent that you just yank out of the woods. . . . " He looked at the overflowing bags and smiled, and I could tell he was thinking about cooking with them. What might he make, I asked. "It's very dense, the flesh, so you have to slow cook it in a wet environment. If you sauté it, it gets as hard as a rock. I might make a matsutake consommé, with button mushrooms. Or sous-vide it," meaning seal it in a plastic bag, "with butter, thyme, garlic, and water. You simmer it for three hours. After that, you can freeze it, then slice it very thin. We make a lobster and matsutake dish like that, thin slices of each."
Rick began to tell the forager's equivalent of fish tales, except that these were true, the forty-seven-pound hen-of-the-woods mushroom he delivered to Fore Street the year before, and the trophy he had his eye on this year, still growing, that might even beat that. He also told us about how he'd been arrested more than once when the police, seeing him bound out of the woods with a sack of mushrooms, had assumed he was after things illegal. He'd once spent a weekend in the Rockland jail, waiting for the arrival of a DEA agent, who told the locals that their "drug seizure" was nothing more than common chanterelles, the only ecstasy the mushrooms were capable of providing were of the gastronomic variety. "Now I go and introduce myself, tell them what I'm doing. I've taught a lot of rangers about mushrooms, given them some to taste. They give me a wave now when they see me."
He yawned, and said he had to be going. He'd been up since 4 a.m., his usual rising time in full season, when he spends sixty to seventy hours a week in the woods. Our expedition was only his second stop of the day. Climbing into his car, he turned and said, "Hey, you know, on the way in I saw a nice hen-of-the-woods on one of those oaks along the water there. Might want to check it out." That would be just like Rick, spotting a mushroom out the window of his speeding car, and generously offering it to someone who shared his enthusiasm for all things wild.