The morel mushroom: why gourmets pay US$500 a kilo for them ? B2Btruffle

The foragers who harvest them, and the health benefits of eating them

    • Morel mushrooms cannot be farmed, and foragers in Europe, North America, China and India scour forests each year for the prized fungi
    • Known for their meaty flavour and versatility, they can be used in Asian and European dishes alike, and are a great source of antioxidants
    • The morel is one of the world’s most prized mushrooms and is harvested in Europe, North America, China and India. It not only tastes good, but has many health benefits too.
  • It is almost worth its weight in gold, has fan clubs devoted to it, and is sought after by top chefs.

    The morel – an elusive, spongy, honeycombed mushroom that grows wild in forests – is a prized delicacy harvested in Europe, North America and Asia. 

    Despite its unappealing looks, characterised by a shrivelled, holey and muddy-hued exterior, connoisseurs love its umami flavour, musky aroma and meaty taste, and morels sell for upwards of US$500 per kilogram.

    Adding to their mystique is the fact that morels are impossible to cultivate commercially; they can only be foraged.

    A dish of morel inveltino served at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi’s exclusive club, The Chambers. Photo: Taj Mahal Hotel
    A dish of morel inveltino served at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi’s exclusive club, The Chambers. Photo: Taj Mahal Hotel

    Moreover, the mushrooms are not always found in the same place from season to season, confusing harvesters.

    In India, where they grow on the slopes of the Himalayas, morels are known as gucchis (the Chinese call them yang du jun, meaning lamb’s stomach mushrooms). “Gucchis grow in clusters on logs of decaying wood, leaves or humus soil where the moisture level is ideal for such fungi to flourish. Harvesters start at the crack of dawn and often spend an entire day wandering through challenging terrain, sometimes digging through thick snow just to find only a few morels,” says Rakesh Handa, an entrepreneur who is fortunate in that morels grow in the forests fringing his apple orchards in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

    In India, morels grow in only two months of the year – March and April, just after the snow has melted. Collecting them is back-breaking work – they are often hidden under the grass, and camouflaged by their brownish colour and crinkled tops.

    “They require sharp eyesight to spot,” says Handa. “This is why it is mostly children – some as young as six – who hunt for them.”

    Gucchi harvesting is often a community activity in India’s hills. While women and children forage along the forest fringes, the men go deeper into the woods. A five- to six-hour trek may yield only 20 to 30 grams (0.65 to 1oz) of morels – and sometimes none. Once collected, the morels are brought home, threaded into garlands and hung up on a nail to dry in the kitchen or spread out to dry in the sunlight. In a few days, they are ready to be sold to local shopkeepers or agents.

    Rakesh Handa shows the morels he found in the forests near his apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh in India. Photo: Rakesh Handa
    Rakesh Handa shows the morels he found in the forests near his apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh in India. Photo: Rakesh Handa

    Although morels may retail for US$500 to US$600 per kilo, the harvesters get only a fraction of the profit. Most of it goes to the middlemen because of the skewed dynamics of the morel trade.

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