Gavish-Galilee Bio Applications claims that its climate-controlled Morel mushrooms are virtually indistinguishable from the homegrown variety.If you’ve ever tasted one, then you’d know why people are crazy about them. The morel mushroom, that is.

The morel flavor is rich and sweetly nutty. A real delicacy, it shares a throne with the likes of truffles, imported chocolate or rare aged cheeses and its fans are just as passionate. On the internet and you’ll find dozens of sites devoted to the portly fungi, including detailed data on where to find them growing wild, how to pick them, dry them, cook with them, and of course, eat them.

So what’s the problem? Access and cost.

Morel mushrooms – also known worldwide as Morchella mushrooms – grow naturally in forests and in special climatic conditions (40 degrees centigrade) along the equator. The morel’s season is a short window of a few weeks in May and June in the U.S. which drives the price of the succulent treasures of 150 tons a year of dried morel mushrooms sold each year in the world up to $400 per kilo. Morels are distinguished by their other-worldly look. The morel top is a maze of tan or dark brown ridges and pits. Unlike other fungi, morels are completely hollow. They are also notoriously hard to find and nearly impossible to cultivate commercially – until now.

Israeli company Gavish-Galilee Bio Applications has developed a solution for both problems – a technology for growing morel mushrooms in controlled hothouse conditions. The unique growing method developed at Gavish is based on optimal, highly specific climatic conditions and a growing bed allowing for control over the mushroom’s growing process.

Gavish is the technical transfer arm of Migal, a research institute in Kiryat Shmona near the northern border of Israel. There, 150 researchers investigate different aspects of the life sciences.

Dr. Segula Masaphy, head of the research team at Migal, said that to date, researchers have not succeeded in developing a method for controlled growing of morel mushrooms, which would produce mushrooms of the same size and taste as those grown naturally.

According to Gavish’s Nir Koyfman, there is a long, unsuccessful history of attempting to replicate the wild morel in a hothouse setting.

“Dr. Ron Ower discovered the process for growing the morel indoors in the early 1980s. at San Francisco State University in 1982. He was said to have been killed in a street crime just before the patent was released in 1986,” said Koyfman.

The technology was further developed and patented by Neogen Corporation. In the early 90s, the first year-round morel farm in Mason, Michigan was built. Later, that patent was then sold to a company called Terry Farms and a new facility was constructed in Auburn, Alabama where they are growing morels today.

But according to Koyfman, all the different strains of the Morel that have been cultivated thus far are a pale, untasty comparison to their wild brothers.

“They’re very small, and the taste and aroma are different than the natural ones,” he said. “Nobody who’s used Dr. Ower’s patent has succeeded in growing a morel that’s the equivalent of the wild variety.”

Koyfman credited Masaphy for discovering the right combination of special compost and climate to produce Gavish’s morels.

“Israeli experts in the Galilee have tasted ours next to natural morels and they said we are very close. In the lab they grow quite well. When you go to commercial growth – there are several factors to keep in mind. One of them is the influence of one mushroom on the other – more heat generated, and less oxygen is available, so adjustments have to be made. The whole growing process takes about three to four weeks.”

When the fresh top-quality Morel is available all year round, it will drive the price down to an affordable level even for connoisseurs and amateurs alike.

Even if the thrill of the hunt is part of the morel mushroom allure, having cultivated morels available year-round puts an end to morel scarcity and will give them a new consistent quality.

Gavish, which is displaying its morel-making innovation this week in Tel Aviv at the Biotech 2003 Conference, expects to be able to begin marketing its mushroom to the public sometime next year. In the meantime, keep digging.