When you think of luxury foods – mushrooms in particular – truffles most probably spring to mind. But hot on their culinary heels are morilles or morels, and nowhere eats more of them than France.
Until very recently, no-one has been able to cultivate these stars of French cuisine, but this season, 52 growers are expecting to harvest home-grown morilles and sell them for a premium price.
Like truffles, the morel lifecycle is extremely complex, leaving top chefs dependent on expert hunters finding them growing in the wild, or importing dried versions from foreign shores. However, the Dordogne’s Christophe Perchat is keen to change all that and wants to produce high quantities of good-quality morels in France.
Eight years ago, he sent a National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) scientist to China, one of the countries where morels grow in abundance, to look into the low-cost, high-yield cultivation methods created by scientists Douxi Zhu and Ronghua, and examined whether the same methods would work in France.
Once given the thumbs up, Mr Perchat signed a contract with the inventors and in 2011, founded the France Morilles company. Along with 30 partners, he bought the exclusive rights to the Chinese patents for use in Europe and France, signed a long-term cooperation agreement with the Chinese team. Mr Perchat has now sold the licence to use this method to 52 growers spread across France, Switzerland and Belgium. Harvest time is in April, and they growers will be anxious to see if their hard work has paid off.
Among the 52 is Morilles du Lac, a Rhône-Alpes-based business run by Jonathan Cabodi, Rémy Barraud and Pierre Girard. Their crop is currently growing in a secret location and the three-year-old firm has great expectations. There were just a few morels in their first year of growing, but last year they produced around 80kgs of morels, which can sell for between €700 and €800 a kilo. In 2016, they hope to harvest between 200 and 300kgs, while the aim for 2018 is two tonnes.
The three young farmers hope to perfect the techniques to such a level that one day a new profession: morilleur will be created.
Morilles du Lac started out bybuying a licence from France Morilles (francemorilles.com/licencesparticuliers/en/), which came withgrowing material morel mycelium - and the secret behind getting the fungus to grow.
Mr Perchat says that the main elements are the right “seed” but also a rigorous approach to temperature, humidity and light, as well as control and care of the soil. Nothing can be left to chance. So tricky is the technique that a research programme has begun with INRA to increase knowledge. Mr Perchat said: “Our aim is to adapt the Chinese methods to France and develop a new form of agriculture.”
However he doesn’t believe that commercialisation and producing in greater quantities will destroy the mystic quality of the morel. “We still know very little about this mushroom,” he said.
“For example in the wild you can go back to the same place for four or five years and then - nothing. Why do they suddenly disappear? Only one morel out of 10 can produce more mushrooms and we need to find out how to pick the ones which are going to be productive.”
France Morilles is still keen for people to buy licences and the good news is you don’t have to be a professional farmer to embark on this adventure. The preliminary licence costs €600 for 100m² but it is only given to people who have the right conditions to grow morels.
Mr Perchat said: “The best kind of soil is black or very dark brown which means it has a high organic content. Temperature is very important. If at a certain depth it drops below -10°c, the morels will die, while if they are about to come out and temperatures are above 25°c they won’t fruit. Usually morels are found around April but if the conditions are right it can be earlier. Last year, the first one was reported 50km south of Nantes in mid-February.”
Three years after acquiring the temporary licence, growers can obtain a full licence to produce organic morels, with strict requirements including a surface area which must measure between 5km² and 10km², and agreeing to a confidentially clause before downloading a highly detailed questionnaire.
For Mr Perchat, his great morel adventure was not planned. He used to work in information management but fell ill with a rare auto-immune disease that had a 30% recovery rate. He survived but was left weak and unable to work for 10 years.
“One night I dreamed about an owl,” he said. “When I woke up, I had one word in my head: morel. From that moment on, I decided to research how to cultivate morels.” His aim is to make morel growing available to as many people as possible, offer a quality product to consumers and create jobs, as well as further research into the precious fungus.
Not bad for a humble mushroom.