When new buds appear on the trees with the advent of spring and the earth warms up, gatherers fan out through the forests in search of morels in fallen leaves.
Perhaps the most iconic of the wild mushrooms, morels are 3 to 6 inches tall and have a distinctive cone-shaped, slatted cap in shades ranging from cream to chocolate brown. Valued for their nutty, earthy flavor, they sell for $50 a pound fresh and $200 a pound dried. They appear for just a few fleeting weeks – in New York, usually from late April to early June.
Experienced morel hunters return year after year to heavily guarded areas, often exhibiting selective hearing loss when asked where they collected their prey.
“There’s something about morels – they have a mystique that fascinates people,” said Gregory Bonito, a biologist who studies morels and other fungi at Michigan State University. And unlike some wild mushrooms, which are easy to grow, morels have a bizarre life cycle that makes them notoriously difficult to grow, explains Dr. Bonito.
Growing morels is not impossible. Until 2008, at least one manufacturer in the US produced them commercially. Since around 2014, farmers in China have been producing this outdoors in the spring, according to Dr. Bonito, but yields can vary. He leads a small morel farming project in Michigan and neighboring states funded by the USDA. All but one of the participating farmers raised at least one morel last year, he said, though the numbers are rising this year.
But the outlook for morels on demand appears to be improving. In December, after four decades of research, Jacob and Karsten Kirk, twin brothers from Copenhagen, announced that they had developed a method to reliably grow large numbers of morels indoors, year-round, in a climate-controlled environment.
The Kirks, who are 64 and often finish each other’s thoughts, say they have grown about 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of mushrooms with their system. Last year’s crop yielded about 4.2 kg in a 22-week cycle, which is about 10 kg per square meter (or 20 pounds per square yard).
“It’s really a lot,” Jacob Kirk said. “Now we can see the commercial aspect of it.” Carsten Kirk added that with their method, “the cost per square meter of morel production would be about the same as that of white button mushrooms.”
It’s not yet clear what the Kirk brothers’ achievement will mean for the prospect of a wider and more accessible search for morels. But if it does, “it’s a game-changer in the food industry,” said Kenneth Toft-Hansen, Danish chef, Bocuse d’Or 2019 winner.an international competition often referred to as the Culinary Olympics.
Jacob and Carsten Kirk said they were fascinated with growing morels as students at the University of Copenhagen in the late 1970s. Even as teenagers, they were ardent biologists who set up a home laboratory to recreate the experiments and observations described in their textbooks. They also enjoyed gathering mushrooms and other wild foods. To combine these interests, they began to grow white mushrooms and oyster mushrooms, which are relatively easy to grow. But they set their sights on morels after learning how expensive they were and that they had never been successfully grown.
After graduating from the university, Yakov and Karsten began to make crafts. Using a sample they found in the forest, they grew morel mycelium—the mushroom equivalent of roots—in a dish, and a few years later set about creating structures called sclerotia, hardened mycelial nuggets that store the nutrients needed by morels and some other types of fungi. . mushrooms rely on fruits.
But it was then, in 1986, that two researchers from Michigan State University and another from California caused a stir in the mushroom growing world when they published the first of three patents describing a method for growing morel sclerotia and coaxing those sclerotia to produce morels. In 1988, the Kirk brothers found an investor who funded their efforts to replicate this method. They have since rented space on the Agricultural Research Campus of the University of Copenhagen for their private work on what they call Danish project Morel.
According to Gary Mills, co-inventor of the patents and CEO of specialty mushroom grower Gourmet Mushrooms in Scottsville, Michigan, the method described in the 1980s worked great. During the 1990s and from 2005 to 2008, Mr. Mills said he and his colleagues grew hundreds of pounds of morels weekly at facilities in Michigan and Alabama. Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, became an investor and built the first commercial morel plant. But in 2008, the financial crisis hit and morel production stopped.
Mr. Mills said that Gourmet Mushrooms planned to return to morels, but due to the high energy and labor costs, making the cultivation process economically viable was a major challenge. One of his college professors often remarked that anyone who learned how to grow morels could easily become a millionaire. “Well,” said Mr. Mills with a grin, “I can tell you that it may or may not be true.
But the Kirk brothers say they’re not particularly motivated by millions. “We learned and enjoyed these experiments,” Carsten said. The brothers never reproduced the US patents, and they said they heard other scientists around the world had problems too, Jacob said. They believe that their new method is very stable.
Its development was a tortuous process. By 2003, they had made some progress, but the brothers had yet to grow a single morel indoors. Money was running low and it looked like they would have to close the store. But just when they needed support the most, a small outdoor growing project paid off. In these experiments, the Kirks set out to recreate the growing conditions of a large aggregation of morels that they had found in nature. They said they soon managed to turn their outdoor success into growing morels indoors. “Now we had a standard method that we could improve step by step,” Jacob said.
Since 2005, they have been working to improve this method. They created and optimized artificial soil and two different types of nutrient substrates, tested different climatic and light conditions. Based on their observations in nature, they found that adding grass to their soil stimulated the mycelium in some way. And after prototyping several growing strategies, they designed and built a moving pallet system to commercialize the most productive one.
The Kirks work alone and carefully record their experiments. Only two other people know all the details of the operation: their investor and Helena Kirk, Karsten’s daughter, who helps with communications. Helena said that, as brothers, they are not afraid to offend each other, as friends or colleagues might be. “They always have little fights with each other and they always make up within the hour.” However, in general, they are very similar in temperament, she added. “Jacob is a little more creative,” she said, “and my dad is more realistic.”
After so much focused work on the science of growing morels, the Kirks are still figuring out how best to commercialize their product. Until now, they have given away most of their income to their investors and a handful of chefs, including Mr. Toft-Hansen.
He first contacted the Kirks in 2014. At the time, he was training for his first Bocuse d’Or, in which contestants are encouraged to use ingredients sourced from their country. “I heard about these two guys doing a crazy morel project in Denmark,” Mr. Toft-Hansen said. When he asked the Kirks if he could add their morels to his meals, they gave him a small catch. Since then, he says, the morels he gets from the Kirks have only gotten better.
The chef noted that in cooking grown morels have a number of great advantages over harvested ones. Wild grown morels often carry dirt, bugs, and slugs with them, but washing away the debris means wetting the mushroom, which will degrade its texture. Grown mushrooms are also susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun and rain. “If it rained the day before, the mushroom is probably soaked and its quality starts to fall apart,” he explained.
So far, the Kirks say they’ve managed to grow morels out of 92 out of 102 specimens, or variants of a particular type of morels called black morels, that they’ve collected over the years. Last year’s unprecedented harvest was obtained from the sclerotia of two of them – variants 195 and 234.
But the brothers’ experiments with morels are far from over. This season they have tested 22 new varieties discovered last year, harvesting nine kilograms (20 pounds) in the past few weeks. All of the new varieties produced morels, and six were especially fast-growing and plump. One of them, 340, is the duo’s new favorite. “It’s like finding gold when you find a new strain,” Carsten said.