While Europeans think of porcini and truffles when the temperature drops, the Japanese gourmand's mind (and palate) turn towards matsutake. These rare and expensive pine mushrooms are grown in cold-climate regions in countries such as China, South Korea and the United States, but the ones from Japan are said to be the most fragrant and have the most delicate taste.
The mushrooms have a thick, long, sturdy stem and when the cap is tightly closed, it resembles a certain male body part, which is probably why it's often viewed as an aphrodisiac. When buying them, check the stems, which should be firm. If the stem is soft, it could mean the mushroom is old or that it is riddled with worms.
The texture of the matsutake is dense and meaty. The flavour is best appreciated in simple preparations. The mushrooms can be grilled until slightly charred then seasoned with a little salt; steamed over rice; or dropped into a bowl of hot broth then quickly covered with a lid so the fragrance is sealed in and the mushroom poaches gently.
For a slightly more labour-intensive preparation, lightly season the matsutake with a little sake and soy sauce, seal tightly in foil or parchment paper, then grill or bake briefly. Unwrap the parcels, being careful to capture all the liquid inside, and eat with steamed rice.
For a Western preparation, saute the matsutake with butter, a little sliced garlic, a splash of white wine and salt and pepper, then serve with plenty of crusty bread to soak up the flavourful sauce.