Can China’s ‘All-Natural’ Mushrooms Make the Grade?
“Ten thousand yuan? No deal, but I’ll give it to you for one-thousand tens.” The seller, a Tibetan merchant specializing in gargantuan matsutake mushrooms, had clearly decided to have a laugh at Yang’s expense, but Yang didn’t seem to mind.
Later, Yang, an experienced matsutake middleman who moonlights as a sort of mushroom influencer on Chinese social media, uploaded video of the exchange to his account on short video platform Douyin. But rather than laugh with him, his fans were stunned. How could one mushroom be worth so much money?
The truth is, the Tibetan merchant’s price was hardly unusual for matsutake of this grade. A combination of climate change and environmental degradation has sent mushroom prices soaring in recent years, but so-called king matsutake — the best of the best — never come cheap. At last year’s Shangri-La Matsutake Fair, a single king matsutake was auctioned off for a whopping 52,000 yuan ($7,600). The year before, a pair of king matsutake fetched a combined 250,000 yuan.
The explosive rise in matsutake prices has lured young Chinese into markets across the southwestern province of Yunnan. Yang, who hails from Jianchuan, a county outside the regional hub of Dali, spurned his family’s carpentry business to cash in on the boom. Although he’s become wary of headline-grabbing prices — he accuses the bigger markets in Shangri-La, Dali, and provincial capital Kunming of organizing stunts in which local merchants sell goods back and forth to generate a buzz — he nevertheless hopes to convince sellers to hold a similar auction in Jianchuan.
“All these (king matsutake sold in Shangri-La) are shipped over from Jianchuan,” Yang grumbled on a recent trip back to his hometown. As he talked, he showed photos of king matsutake taken in Shangri-La. They indeed bore a striking resemblance to the matsutake, known as Dongshan matsutake, I had seen growing in eastern Jianchuan.
One of the purposes of Yang’s trip home was to show a mushroom trader from the northern city of Tangshan the pleasures of Jianchuan matsutake. The recent boom has made Shangri-La synonymous with high-quality, “all-natural” matsutake, but Yang insists Shangri-La’s dominance is the result of public relations, not taste.
He has a point. Shangri-La is heavily marketed within China as a nature-lover’s dream. Rebranded from Zhongdian in 2001, the city’s new name was meant to boost tourism by conjuring up idyllic images from the 1933 James Hilton novel “Lost Horizon.” The earthy yet exotic matsutake fit neatly into the city’s public image as a primordial paradise, even as booming sales have led to widespread over-harvesting.
Dongshan matsutake, which grow in Jianchuan’s eastern forests, have never enjoyed the fame of their Shangri-La counterparts. Although their quality is generally appreciated by industry insiders, they suffer from a reputation for being engineered, rather than all-natural. In 2002, Yunnan officials designated Jianchuan as a “model county” for the matsutake industry and began enforcing conservation measures meant to curb over-harvesting. As a part of this initiative, villagers were granted parcels of forest land and entrusted with the task of guarding the matsutake growing there.
Although locals have yet to master the art of cultivating matsutake in plantations, they have learned how to tend to the forest to allow the mushrooms to grow unimpeded. When the mushrooms break through the soil, villagers use natural materials to build an enclosure around them. They check on these enclosures, known as “mushroom ponds,” daily, hoping to find the next “king matsutake.”
Yang parked his car in Jianchuan’s forest lowlands, next to several SUVs belonging to his fellow traders, and we all piled out onto the muddy ground. Passing out cigarettes to a group of villagers, he convinced them to lead us to a mushroom pond. We were instructed not to wander off the trail; the villagers worried we’d accidentally trample on precious mushrooms, or worse, try to steal them.
When we finally arrived at our destination, our guide removed the protective awning from the pond and gently brushed away the layer of topsoil with a wooden stick to reveal a perfect specimen. Yang’s Tangshan buyer excitedly filmed the reveal, broadcasting the pond’s contents to his fellow matsutake lovers back home. But off-camera, and perhaps a little tipsy after a meal of mushrooms and sorghum liquor, his comments were more muted. He maintained that Dongshan matsutake are too manufactured and not as flavorful as those from Shangri-La. Beside him, Yang was silent, seemingly displeased that his friend was parroting the “all-natural” narrative.
But what qualifies a mushroom as “all-natural”? A tour of Yang’s storage room hints at the difficulties facing foragers of wild, uncultivated mushrooms. In Jianchuan, “natural” matsutake can still be foraged in the county’s less-regulated western forests. But due to poor rainfall last summer, the quality of these matsutake has declined. Yang complained that recent purchases tend to be dull in color, have weak stalks, or are misshapen. He also worried that they won’t stand up to long-distance transportation. Even cold storage doesn’t work. “They fall through the quality grades so quickly,” Yang lamented.
Meanwhile, cultivated Dongshan mushrooms can reach a diameter of nine centimeters or more before they even open their caps. The golden rule of the matsutake market is that bigger is better. Terroir-related quibbles aside, few buyers would turn down a matsutake of those dimensions.
Even ignoring the advantages of human cultivation, it’s increasingly hard to define just what makes a matsutake natural. All Yunnanese mushrooms grow in an environment that has been modified by humans. Climate change has cast a pall over the province’s foragers. Rising temperatures have led to more pests and diseases, with many matsutake being gnawed by insects before their caps have a chance to unfurl. And over-foraging of natural mushrooms threatens their ability to reproduce.
In recent years, Shangri-La’s mushroom harvest has steadily shrunk, while the quality of its produce has become increasingly difficult to guarantee. That’s why Yang’s Tangshan buyer was willing to detour into Jianchuan: He’s looking for new sources.
To address the crisis, last June, the Shangri-La government issued a notice regarding the protection of matsutake resources. The notice forbids the harvesting of both immature matsutake and older matsutake. The decision was motivated by commercial considerations: Young matsutake are more tender, making them ideal for matsutake “sashimi,” and can fetch a decent price. However, as matsutake mature, their flavors — and price — increase dramatically. Meanwhile, although old mushrooms can be used to make soup, their quality varies, making them less valuable on the market. It’s therefore more profitable in the long run for villagers to allow them to spread their spores on the forest floor.
The Yunnan matsutake market offers a unique window into the merits and limits of human intervention on the ecosystem. In an era of climate change and widespread development, the line between “all-natural” and cultivated matsutake is increasingly hard to discern. Demand for natural mushrooms has helped make a handful of traders rich, but it’s also lead to exploitative harvesting and put the future of matsutake at risk.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A consumer examines matsutake mushrooms at a market in Kunming, Yunnan province, June 26, 2021. Yang Zheng/VCG)