Chinese villagers strike gold with a much-sought-after fungus.

Sui-nong loves thunder. “It makes the mushrooms so scared, they simply jump out of the ground,” he jokes. Sui-nong spends each summer scaling 3,500-m ridges in China’s Yunnan province searching for mushrooms of a very special sort: the matsutake, a fungus prized above all others by Japanese gourmets.

Matsutake can’t be cultivated & attempts to do so have eluded the world’s experts. And they’re anything but easy to find, growing under beds of pine needles or on the roots of ancient fir trees. They have to be rooted out extremely carefully to avoid damage. Scrambling up a vertical ridge, Sui-nong leads us to one of his secret patches: five baby mushrooms nestle under the shadow of a towering tree. He will guard them for two weeks until they get big enough to fetch a top price.

Boasting one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, the lush, temperate mountains of northern Yunnan are, for two months of the year, home to maturing matsutake (known in Mandarin as songrong). When Japanese harvests were devastated by an insect-borne disease 15 years ago, a disaster from which the Japanese industry has yet to recover, these mountains became the world’s matsutake hot spot. Yunnan now supplies Japan with more than half of its annual demand.

The matsutake boom has boosted Sui-nong’s annual income from $100 to $1,000. Every summer, his family moves its yak, a butter churn and two guard dogs to a simple log cabin in the mountains, their base for the harvest season. “Its only 3 km away”, says Sui-nong one crisp morning as we leave his home by foot, arriving four hours later in a luxuriant green valley strewn with pink and violet wildflowers. From here his family scours the uplands. The locals have never rated matsutake highly (they call them “dirt-termite mushrooms”) and still can’t believe the prices they fetch. “Before the Japanese came, there were so many songrong, we would use baskets to gather them,” Sui-nong recalls. “We’d put them in soup or sell them at the market for three yuan a kilo.” Today, top-quality matsutake earn pickers $18 each, skyrocketing to $500 per kilogram during the meager end-of-season period. “We don’t eat them anymore,” Sui-nong exclaims. “It’s just too expensive!”

Sitting around a blazing fire, Sui-nong examines the day’s harvest. “Now everybody wants to pick mushrooms. But they pick them when they’re too immature, so the mushrooms get fewer and fewer.” Competition for matsutake is fierce in the region, resulting in violence and even murder in recent years. Only time will tell whether Yunnan’s matsutake industry is sustainable. For now, Sui-nong believes his best hope is a little cunning. “I’m still keeping my patches a secret,” he says, “while I pray for more thunder.”

This article appeared in the October 4, 2004 issue of TIME Europe magazine. It was originally written for TIME Asia magazine, who also ran it in October, 2004.