The Gucci of mushrooms

Lalita Iyer | Updated on March 10, 2018
Asking prize: The tiniest ones, almost blacking brown, are at a premium, fetching as much as ₹13,000 a kilo from middlemen. Photo: Rebecca Vaz

Asking prize: The tiniest ones, almost blacking brown, are at a premium, fetching as much as ₹13,000 a kilo from middlemen. Photo: Rebecca Vaz

Guchchi Pulao

Guchchi Pulao

This wild morel could be right in front of you and you will never find it

It happened soon after my hammock read of ‘Buying Truffles from Monsieur X’, a delightful essay in Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence. I was in the hills of Rajgarh, in village Bhuira of the famous Bhuira Jams, mulling over a truffle pasta I had at a posh dinner a few years ago, and wondering if it indeed made me feel rich. A few days later, Ramkali, caretaker of the Mushran home that owns Bhuira Jams, handed me a small bowl of flavoured rice garnished with what looked like tiny honeycombed mushrooms. It was cooked in honour of Linnet Mushran, who had just arrived, and who was something of a connoisseur.

“You are the chosen one,” said Ramkali. “We rarely make guchhi pulao, that’s why I saved some for you.”

It sounded better in Hindi.

Sabke naseeb mein nahi hain yeh!”

Why chosen one? Are they off-season?

“They cost more than ₹10,000 a kilo, so people here never cook them. They are only meant for selling,” she explained.

The name suddenly seemed appropriate, given the luxury pricing.

Morel mushrooms or guchhi, as they are locally called in Himachal Pradesh, cannot be cultivated, but grow wild in the Kangra valley, Jammu and Kashmir, Manali and a few other parts of Himachal in the post-snowfall period.

Poor families in villages spend entire days in the wild, scraping the snow, in search of these elusive delicacies. Harvesting guchhis is an arduous and painful process and involves grave risks to life. If they strike gold, morels can provide 20-30 per cent of annual cash income in some villages in the hills. However, it can take months before enough can be collected, dried and brought to the market.

Villagers often set out at the crack of dawn (to beat the others), carrying food and water for the day, and returning in the evening with a few grams. These are strung into garlands and hung above the fire ( chulha) to dry. It takes weeks for it to add up to a decent amount for sale.

The tiniest ones, almost blackish brown, are at a premium, fetching as much as ₹13,000 a kilo from middlemen. As the snow melts closer to March/April, the mushrooms grow paler, larger and hollow, and also lose some of their market value, yet are able to fetch at least ₹9,000-10,000 a kilo. There are stories of how the weight is scammed by stuffing the guchhis with mud, but these are often caught by the shrewd middlemen, who buy from the collectors and export to the West, where morels have always been valued as among the best mushrooms for cooking.

Sometimes, the guchhis could be right in front of you and you will never find it, says Ramkali. Belmati, who works as a caretaker on a farm, sounds resigned as I ask her about her guchhi escapades.

Arre didi, I never did find them; you have to be destined. I am not even going to look for them anymore, it is so frustrating..”

Children, Ramkali says, have amazing luck with guchhis; their proximity to the ground and keen eyes work in their favour. The kids in Himachal have got wind of the cash cows these things are, and sell off quantities to middlemen in order to buy treats, or for the joy of having money.

Villagers almost never eat the guchhis, they would rather sell them. It is not served at weddings or feasts or even at a special meal.

The guchhi has a strong flavour that has to come out on its own, hence cooking with strong spices is not advisable. The way to do justice to its flavour and cost, is to cook gently, in its own water, perhaps sautéed with tomatoes to make a pulao, like the one I had. This is the only way to retain the earthy aroma. In Kashmiri cooking, the guchhis are usually diced and stir fried. At The Table in Mumbai, morels served on a bed of quinoa and garnished with parmesan is the most expensive dish on the menu.

I am not sure if the guchhi pulao I ate was exquisite or whether it actually tickled my palate. What I know is that as a special guest, I was offered something that the locals have for years denied themselves. And just for that, the guchhi is embedded in my food memory.

Lalita Iyer is a journalist and author based in Mumbai

Published on July 07, 2017

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