Like carpets that Kashmir weaves but ill-affords for itself, the valley produces more than 25 tons of costly morels that sell at a cost higher than silver in the global market, reports Tazeem Nazir

Morel Mushrooms, locally called Gucchi or Kan Gitch are prized wild-growing Fungi that feed a high end overseas market in Kashmir

Come spring and hundreds of people living in the Kashmir foothills will leave for, what they say, the Gucchi hunt. Usually arduous journeys, it is expertise and fate that helps collectors to locate the morels in the coniferous forests, the most expensive mushrooms that cannot be cultivated commercially. Locally, it is called Gucchi or Kan Gutch.

A major Kashmir export, these mushrooms are a treasure for collectors and a taste for consumers.  Collectors take months in harvesting these mushrooms and many weeks to sun-drying them before selling them.

Collectors offer interesting ideas about their hunts. These mushrooms grow in clumps on partly rotten tree trunks, topsoil, and leaves. “Some people say, these could be found anywhere near a spot that had seen a forest fire in the last season,” one collector claimed. “But the crisis is that they may not grow at  the same place next season.” Another belief is that these mushrooms sprout after lightning strikes the ground. Usually, they start appearing in late March and can be collected up to May.

It looks distinct from the entire mushroom varieties. Its cap is faded brownish cream, yellow to tan, or faded brown to greyish brown. The edges of the ridges are usually lighter than the pits, and quite oval in outline, now and again bluntly cone-shaped with a rounded pinnacle or greater elongate. Caps are hollow and connected to the stem at the lower edge. The meat is fragile. The stem is white to pale yellow or pale yellow, hollow and straight, or with a bulbous or club-shaped base.

“I live near the forest. When I was 15, I used to go on a mushrooms hunt,” Mohammad Waseem, a resident of Rayil in Ganderbal’s Gund belt, said. “I used to go for fun but sometimes it would fetch me some morels. The season for harvesting these mushrooms starts after the snow lines start disappearing.”

The morel pickers are supposed to be experts in their field. Nature grows lot of false morels as well and some of them are poisonous. The fake morels are almost akin to the prized mushroom but slightly differ in their caps which are rounder in false ones. Of over 14000 mushroom species only less than 3000 are edible.

Morels grow in higher reaches. “When we reach higher forests we face difficulties in finding these mushrooms as they are scattered over the forest land,” Zareefa, who goes on morel harvesting every year in Ganderbal hills, said. “At home, we put these mushrooms like beads in a thread and put the ‘garland” to sundry. They need proper care otherwise fungus can hit the garlands of mushrooms and make them black.”

Zareefa said she has heard that these mushrooms are very costly but we do not get much from it. “Earlier, we used to get Rs 10,000 for one kilogram but now we barely get half of it,” Zareefa regretted, insisting that the dealers give too hoots to the struggle we put in to collect these rare plants. She has been collecting the morels for the last three years between April and June. “Families used to manage their living by selling these mushrooms but now it is too difficult because we do not get much from it.”

A Major Export

Harvesters apart, the morels are a key export. Though a small part of the yearly collection goes to the upmarket hotel chains, the bulk goes offshore. A conservative estimate puts the average yearly morel production at around 25 tons.

“We supply morels to Germany, France, Switzerland, and China,” one Srinagar-based exporter, who talked on the condition of anonymity, said. “Routinely, we export around none tons a year. It mostly goes to different food industries.” He puts the cost for A-grade morel per kilogram at Rs 20,000 but insiders in the sector said it is way beyond it.

The exporter said the quantum of harvest in a year is linked to the weather conditions. Adverse weather hampers the harvest by Gujjars and Bakerwals, who are major contributors to the collection.

Admitting that there were problems in demand, another exporter Mohammad Affan said the global recession seriously compromised the rates. “These mushrooms are being sold either at supermarkets or are in demand from upmarket hotel chains,” Affan said. “Because of Covid19, tourism and travel were seriously impacted and the demand fell to an all-time low. The global slowdown has witnessed a 20 per cent fall in overseas demand and right now we see only 70 to 80 per cent sales.”

Asked about the disinterest that mushroom collectors are exhibiting because of low returns, another exporter said the morels are being marketed through a complicated long chain. “It is not that we purchase from gatherers and then we sell in retail. The fact is that we sell to major business companies who sell to the retailers,” the exporter said. “It has a lot to do with the size and quality of the mushroom, and age plays a key role.” He said the per kilogram costs start from Rs 10,000 and it goes up to Rs 24000 depending upon these factors – the same season morel costs more than the one that was harvested last season. “Smaller qualities cost huge. Even in Kashmir, a 100-gram packet would cost you Rs 3000.”

Morel exports said they are taking all the mandatory precautions in making the purchases. It is a zero-GST commodity but these exporters have to ensure they buy the mushroom from collectors who are certified by the forest department. “They must have the license,” one exporter said. “It is a laborious process to establish that the mushroom falls in the zero tariff category in GST. We do this for the farmers because they have only small quantities.”

The morel mushroom collectors are scattered across Kashmir. Mostly in the foothills, they are in Kupwara, Budgam, Ganderbal and Pahalgam and other parts of south and north Kashmir. “While they are collected early spring, the morels are in demand mostly during winters between September and March.”

Masood Wafai, a mechanical engineer turned mushroom entrepreneur said the morels in Kashmir are surrounded by myths. “That morels sprout with lightning and thunder hitting the ground in higher reaches is baseless,” Wafai, who recently attended a high-end interaction with academics, said. “These mushrooms require a particular temperature and environment to grow. The more black the soil, the more the fungus would be around. The Directorate of mushroom research, which has been working on these morels for the last three years have succeeded in growing these mushrooms in laboratory conditions but they have not succeeded in the way they wanted. It is being said that China has already produced it successfully but they are not letting their secret out.”

The Nutrient Worth

Even though the morels share a lot of their properties and nutrient structure with other mushrooms, the Gucchi fungus is still costly. “The demand for these mushrooms is high because they are rich in nutrients and they shed almost 80 per cent of their water when dried and with water, they resume a much bigger size.”

Beenish Zohra, a dietician, said Kashmir calls it Kan Gitch because they look like human ears. Known as Morchella esculenta to science this most sought-after macro-fungi has medicinal properties and is considered a dietary antioxidant. “The scientific research carried out on morels demonstrates that their anti-oxidative have immune-stimulatory and anti-inflammatory bioactivities besides being anti-tumour properties,” Zohra said. “The morel contains high amounts of potassium, vitamins, and copper, which all contribute to a healthy nervous system and cardiovascular health. Besides, they carry the highest amount of vitamin D among edible mushrooms, in addition to vitamin B1m which is thiamine that breaks down the body’s sugar content.”

People suffering from Arthritis, have thyroid or liver issues or wish to resist fatigue are being suggested to use morels as part of the food. “By nature, these mushrooms are antiviral, lower the blood sugar, reduce the signs of ageing, and improve immunity,” Zohra added. “The healing capacities of the mushroom make it vital in traditional medicine baskets.”

Zohra said that people who have mushroom allergy must avoid morels. Before they are cooked, they need to be cleaned properly because in certain cases insects remain trapped in their flesh. Over-consumption can lead to severe abdominal issues and can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting.

Climate Change

Morels do not grow in Jammu and Kashmir alone. In fact, the entire Himalayan range is home to precious mushrooms. Off late, however, there are reports that the availability of the mushroom has gone down and the research carried out by the Solan-based Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) Directorate of Mushroom Research suggests that the increase in temperature is the key reason. Climate change, the research suggests is making this mushroom a victim.

At the same time, the experts suggest that the morel pickers must not uproot the mushroom totally. Instead, they must cut it from the stem. Besides, they suggest that if the pickers encounter a bunch at a spot, they must leave at least one mushroom untouched.


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