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Treasure Hunting for a Wild Japanese Delicacy

Eric Milligan (l) and Keith Garrett
Elaine Grant
Eric Milligan (l) and Keith Garrett

Because of a faraway tragedy, and a fluke of nature, the two men are learning a thing or two about the global economy – and about the fine line between passion and obsession.

If there were such a thing as a professional mushroom forager in New Hampshire, Keith Garrett would be it. So would Eric Milligan.

The two men have been hunting mushrooms in the Lakes Region for the last six years. More than 5,000 species of mushrooms have been identified in this region alone, but Milligan and Garrett are walking encyclopedias.

“I just got an incredible whiff of mushroom in the wind?” I ask.

“That’s a bunch of cortinarius mushrooms rotting in the breeze,” Says Keith Garrett.  

Milligan is at least as knowledgeable.

They’ve brought me here, to a lovely patch of woods in Tuftonboro, ostensibly to help me distinguish safe mushrooms from poisonous ones.

But really, they want to show off a treasure.

“We call this matsutake fever.”

Keith Garrett has a broad grin on his face.

“It feels like the unrelenting urge to go out in the woods, get cold, wet, dirty, trampling up hillsides, falling down mudslides, just to find another matsutake.”

Garrett is dark-haired, of medium build, a 30-something computer professional who uses Google Earth to find new matsutake hunting grounds. Carrying a wicker basket and wearing a wide smile, he looks like an overgrown kid.

So does Eric Milligan, who’s playing hooky from his work as a dockhand supervisor at the Wolfeboro Marina to join us for a couple of hours.

They’d rather be here than anywhere else. Especially this year. Because this year, if you know where to look, you can find a mother lode of matsutakes.

The large, meaty mushrooms are so prized in Japan that they’ve been known to sell there for $700 a pound.

And for good reason, Garrett says. “I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like a matsutake…The aroma is amazing. It’s kind of like cinnamon and pine, and soon you’ll get to smell it because we’re getting close to the first spot.”

Japanese chefs love them so much that one of the few veteran exporters of wild mushrooms in this country once paid pickers $250 a pound to gather matsutake for the Emperor of Japan.

Milligan says they’re hard to find, no matter where in the world you are.  “This species doesn’t grow all over the country. It grows in the Pacific Northwest, the northeast, Japan, and China. It’ll grow in little pockets, but it’s not like anyone can go out in the woods and pick this species.”

There are one or two suppliers in Maine – but New Hampshire is not known for matsutakes.

“The most we’ve ever picked of this species in one season was actually six years ago and we’d picked 70 pounds…This year, we’re at, what are we at now?” Milligan asks.

The answer: 545 pounds.

Milligan and Garrett are profiting from a perfect storm of factors – with global warming and the tragedy of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown at its eye. In September, scientists discovered that wild mushrooms in Fukushima were contaminated by radiation. The government banned wild mushroom shipments in much of northern Japan. And the Japanese couldn’t turn to their regular suppliers: matsutakes have been devastated by droughts in China and Korea and by constant rain in Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

With the global supply at an historic low, the price of these delicacies – which cannot be cultivated -- is high. But Hurricane Irene, along with a rainy spring, brought the gift of matsutakes to New Hampshire.

So for the first time, Garrett and Milligan braved the secretive and risky world of wild mushroom trading.They sold 150 pounds of matsutakes to an exporter and made about $2000.

Now, Milligan says, their exporter wants more.

“In fact we need to find 60 more pounds before Monday to fill a quota for Japan, so you know what we’ll be doing Saturday and Sunday.”

They haven’t spotted any yet today.

Soft pine needles blanket the forest floor.

To our left, a steep embankment leads down to a stunning waterfall. Matsutakes love vertical terrain like this. Garrett and Milligan peer steadily at the ground, hoping to see a telltale white bump peeking out from the pine needles.

While a confluence of factors has given the two of them matsutake fever, it is wrong to assume that money drives their foraging passion. Over the years, Milligan says, they’ve given hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds of mushrooms away. “I work six days a week. I’m in the woods four of those days after work until dark and then on Sunday, from May until it snows.”

Their enthusiasm is catching – not necessarily for mushroom hunting, but for finding that single thing that makes you happy, even when it appears to have little utilitarian purpose. “For both Keith and I,” Milligan says, “We’re both attracted to things that are both an art and a science. You can learn all you want on the science end of mushrooms….but to actually find them or to actually grow them I think is an art form. So anything that brings those two things drives me as a person.”

Milligan spots the first matsutake of the day. “See how it’s just starting to come up under the ground?...I wanna kind of get underneath it and see if I can pry it up.”

The mushrooms have large white caps and they grow close to the ground, with inch-wide firm roots. The guys use long screwdrivers to pry them out of the soil.

“This is a horrible example of what one of these looks like, and I even broke it,” Milligan says. “Break this open, you can see how there’s a veil that protects the gills.”

We move on, looking for a perfect matsutake. The Japanese grade the mushrooms from number one to number six – a worthless, buggy fungi.

The number ones fetch the most money. Milligan spots one – and hands me the screwdriver. I can’t get it out, and it breaks. “I’m sorry!”

When we’re done, Milligan neatly pats the duff – that’s the light covering of topsoil and needles – back into place. “I want another mushroom to come up there,” he says. and it’s just proper picking technique, respecting nature. And, Garrett says, “It also hides where we’ve picked.”

It’s time to leave. But on the way out, Garrett and Milligan just can’t help themselves …the abundant fungi here are like magnets to them. Milligan scrambles down the embankment, finding one more perfect mushroom before the day ends.

He’s a little sheepish. “There’s a very very fine line between a hobby and an obsession,” he says. “You could say we’re a little obsessed with it at this point, but at the end of the day, even if you didn’t find a single mushroom, you had a great day hiking in the woods.”

Then he turns, and adds one more mushroom to his basket.

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