Hunt on Harwan heights for Kashmir’s ‘royal cuisine’

With the arrival of spring, Kashmir’s jungles are witnessing a feverish rush of Gucchi gatherers. Amid the prized crop chase, researchers have failed to cultivate the wild mushroom in controlled environment so far

At Harwan heights offering a bird’s-eye-view of Srinagar’s spectacular landscape, two men arrive on the pre-dawn adventure. They hike higher and dig deeper into the green gold to bring home the rare and world famous variety of mushroom.

Showkat Bhat, 31, and Sajad Ahmad, 34, are native mushroom gatherers — collecting the most prized morels from the upper reaches of Dachigam forests.

Their tribe of explorers grows on the onset of spring in the valley when the wild mushroom sprouts in jungles.

Known locally as Guchhi, morel (or morchella) is one of the rare varieties of wild mushrooms that grows mostly on the higher reaches of Kashmir.

Though it sprouts sporadically throughout the forest areas of the valley, Kangan, Anantnag and Kupwara belts account for most its collection.

“I’ve been into this seasonal trade for over a decade now,” says Sajad, while referring to the plucking of the prized variety of the wild mushroom.

Legend has it that Gucchis sprout overnight after thunder and shower.

“As a convention, one needs to wait for a thunder and shower to allow the sprouting of the mushroom,” says Showkat, while explaining the intricacies of the trade.

“Whenever it rains during the month of April, on the very next morning, I along with my friend go out for a collection of the mushroom in these neighbourhood forests.”

And the predawn hunt is only worth it.

Unlike common mushrooms, Gucchi is considered as the “elixir of life”.

Health experts say this wild mushroom can be used to treat several infections, and even tumors.

“As an antioxidant, Gucchi boosts immune system,” says Dr. Waheed ul Hassan, Technical Officer at the Directorate of Indian System of Medicine, Srinagar.

“We can also use Gucchi as aphrodisiac and nutritional supplement.”

For its unparalleled medicinal and dietary value, this rare mushroom is highly priced in the global as well as local market.

Guchi mushrooms are averagely sold between Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per kilogram.

“If the luck favours,” Sajad says, “we usually earn between Rs 50 to 70 thousand from the precious catch during the season.”

Due to its high market price, Gucchi, also known as the “cuisine of the royal”, is used for gala feasts and functions by the well-to-do families.

Being rich in taste with musky flavor, Gucchi dishes are prepared by Wazas or Kashmiri chefs during marriage parties.

These dishes are mostly served to the bridegroom and his friends during the reception ceremony at the bride’s home.

However, Sajad says, Gucchi collection remains a painstaking effort.

Predawn collectors like him have to trek miles through the perilous forests to identify and then collect the rare mushroom.

“Gucchis are usually found under deodar and pine trees,” Sajad says. “But identifying them among the other variety is a very difficult. It consumes a lot of energy and takes time.”

With every new season, Sajad and his friend change the tracks, since the wild mushroom “does not grow on the same spot every time”.

Till date, surprisingly, no research has been able to develop Gucchi spores.

And hence, the artificial cultivation of the wild mushroom has been out of bounds for humans.

“There’ve been many attempts to grow this royal cuisine under controlled conditions, but unfortunately all such projects have yielded no results so far,” admits an officer, associated with the mushroom cultivation in J&K’s agriculture department.

Earlier, the department had tried to grow Gucchi on a demarcated land at Gulmarg forest range, the officer says, but the attempt turned out to be a sheer failure.

But if tamed and cultivated, says Prof Bashir Ahmad of Kashmir University’s Economics Department, Gucchis can change the agrarian economy of the valley.

“If the researchers are successful in achieving the controlled cultivation of this wild mushroom,” Prof Bashir says, “it can emerge as a cash crop for the people.”

But till that happens, Sajad and Showkat are only happy to leave home on the onset of spring for the Gucchi hunt on Harwan heights.


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