With its leathery texture, earthy flavour, a host of health benefits, and a rare occurrence, the morel or gucchi mushroom is an exotic delicacy even in India, where it is found.
With a honeycomb head and dark brown hue, they make a visual statement, rather different from other mushrooms. A texture and flavour close to that of meat, makes them score excellent in taste; and a host of nutrients and health benefits have them acing the health chart too.
Belonging to the Morchella family, morels are one of the most expensive mushrooms found in India. Locally known as gucchi, they occur in the wild, in the mighty Himalayan range.
“They are mostly found in deodar jungles, at higher altitudes. At lower heights, and say in pine forests, one only finds a few mushrooms scattered here and there,” says Harish Sharma, executive chef & general manager at Aamod Resort in Shogi. “In the property’s pine jungle, the staff has sometimes been able to lay their hands only on four or five pieces,” he adds.
Gucchi grows at the foothills of the Himalayan range passing through the north Indian states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu & Kashmir. It mostly grows during the rainy season, lending it the myths that revolve around it. “Some people believe that gucchi grows only on the land where lightning strikes,” shares Sharma.
Another legend that goes around is that not everyone can spot these mushrooms, and that children are good at finding them due to their sharp eyes and proximity to the ground.
Morels are known to grow in a different spot every time, and the morning light acts as a guide, thus locals usually ply out in mornings for collecting gucchis, and they do so with a hopeful heart.
Gucchi is perhaps the most expensive mushroom harvested in India, sometimes costing upto INR 15,000 per kilogram. Locals who harvest it rarely consume it and prefer selling it to middlemen instead. Some studies have shown that in some villages, locals make about 20-30 pc of their annual cash income by selling the harvest.
A mushroom to munch
Rarely is this exotic item seen at dining tables for regular meals, and only a handful of high-end restaurants serve it.
“Gucchi do pyazaa, gucchi kebabs are some refined dishes being made from the mushrooms,” says Sharma. “Traditionally it is consumed in soup, and in rice,” he adds.
Gucchi rice is possibly one of the most traditional dishes made from the mushroom; one etched in the memories of a previous generation. It is so common in Kashmir, that the colloquial name for morels is batt kuch, literally rice mushroom. The richness of these mushrooms can be savoured in the dish, as every strand of aromatic rice also exudes the earthiness of gucchi.
Since they are not readily available, chefs and connoisseurs preserve them for later. “Like most mushrooms, gucchi also has a moisture content, which we extract before freezing them. This enhances their shelf life, allowing them to be used for two years sometimes if stored in dark and away from sunlight,” explains Sharma.
Since a way to cultivate morels in an agricultural setting has not been figured yet, they continue to grow and be found only in the wild, being a musky little treat for those who find it- in forests or even in restaurants.
Chamba, Himachal Pradesh