Over recent weeks, in parts of the British countryside, mushroom hunters have been out in force. For spring is the season of the legendary wild mushroom, the morel.
Such is the cult status of the morel that there are "morel hunting" conventions and championships, and outfitters sell equipment for gathering "expeditions". Those hunters who have been lucky enough to find the mushrooms are now trying to find ways of preserving them, as fresh morels can only be found at this time of year.
But this could be about to change, thanks to the work of an Israeli research team. The small Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, on the Lebanese, border is an unlikely location for the next big innovation in fine dining.Though you can buy a great falafel there, that is about the extent of local gatronomy. But it is there that fungus expert Segula Masaphy has found a way to grow the morel - a mushroom that can fetch hundreds of pounds per kilo - in laboratory conditions.
Dr Masaphy, a researcher at Migal Galilee Technology Centre, has been working on morels for a decade, and is now ready to begin a large-scale trial that would mimic commercial production.
"This is very important - since we are growing in controlled conditions. If this works on a large scale we will be able to produce morels all-year-round," she says. "This is very exciting."
The difficulty with producing morels in controlled conditions is that they are mycorrhizal, meaning that they need the roots of trees to nourish themselves. Dr Masaphy has managed to break this dependency.
Dr Masaphy posted messages on the internet asking Israelis who found morels to make contact with her and provide a sample, and also went herself to Israeli nature spots looking for morels. She then analysed the samples, in order to understand exactly what various varieties of morel need in terms of nutrients and other variables. "We had several different ecotypes, and being able to compare them and the conditions in which they were found gave us a good start," she says.
With her method not yet patented, she is reluctant to give much away. But she says that the secret lies in "a combination of things" including control of humidity, light and nutrients.
Dr Masaphy's innovation comes at a time when Israeli farmers are acutely aware of the country's water troubles. The State Committee for the Investigation of the Water Shortage concluded in March that the country's natural water reservoirs are 53 billion cubic feet below the level they should be to ensure stable water supply. This deficit is the equivalent of the potable water used in Israel in a whole year.
It also comes as increasing numbers of consumers are questioning the wisdom of buying large bulky items - Israel's traditional exports such as oranges and grapefruit included - that have travelled many "food miles."
Morels, however, use small amounts of water and have low transport costs in proportion to value. What is more, they have a relatively quick turnaround with the Masaphy method, cultivation of spores to harvest is just three months; and they can be grown packed together.
Israel could also be poised to export another high-value fungus, the truffle. A colleague of Dr Masaphy's, Ofer Dannay, is developing ways of growing truffles in what he calls "semi-artificial" conditions.
Some 16 years ago, trees at Kibbutz Bar'am near Kiryat Shmona were treated with imported truffle spores. The experiment proved, in Dr Dannay's words, "quite a disappointment," yielding just one truffle, despite great efforts to artificially cool the area by covering it with sheeting, and the project was halted five years ago. But last summer, Dr Dannay received a call from the kibbutz saying that several truffles had been found, sparking his interest in the project again. He is now excited to find out whether there will be more this summer.