This article was also published in the Financial Times.
This year's Restaurant Show at Earl's Court in London contained one unexpected gem. Past the stands displaying the latest in vast washing up machines, gleaming ovens and software packages to improve reservations systems was a small coterie of producers and growers, the most colourful of which displayed baskets of the freshest wild mushrooms.
Their virtues were being declaimed by two women and one man but it was the passionate voice of one of these women which stopped me in my tracks. It sounded as clear and distinctive as when I had heard it 20 years ago whenever a certain Mrs Tee had called my restaurant from the depths of her home in the New Forest in Hampshire. She would politely explain what she had on offer from her foraging in the woods, express her delight with any order we placed and then promptly deliver these herself the following day.
There could be no questioning the strong German accent, however, and the sign above the stand proudly proclaimed, 'Mrs Tee's Wild Mushrooms – Quality You Can Trust'. I introduced myself, and after a brief reminisce, asked whether in view of the latest alarms over the picking of poisonous wild mushrooms, I could come and talk to the person many top chefs turn to when they have the slightest concern. She readily agreed.
Four days later I drove the 90 miles south west of London to the outskirts of Lymington where Brigitte Tee now runs her mushroom business alongside a small bed and breakfast business at which, not surprisingly perhaps, wild mushrooms feature prominently on her dinner menu.
She opened the kitchen door wearing a green apron and apologized for the gamey smell. She had just been butchering a saddle of venison, which she promptly consigned to the fridge before sitting down, something I imagine this energetic woman rarely does.
Although it was in fact while sitting down, albeit on horseback, that she was initially inspired her to start the business. "We moved here in 1973 and as I went riding in the New Forest I could see wild mushrooms everywhere, unappreciated and unpicked. There were lots of hedgehog mushrooms which I knew were being sold for 123 Deutschemarks a kilo in Berlin, a lot of money at the time, and my original plan was to sell them there."
Happily, the logistics proved too complicated so instead she wrote to the chefs at four hotels, The InterContinental, The Dorchester, The Hilton and The Inn on the Park, whose kitchens at the time were led by German and Swiss chefs who fully appreciated what she had to offer. Her business was born.
Although for 20 years it was more a hobby than a business. Having foraged and taken her orders, Mrs Tee would take the train from Brockenhurst laden with boxes of mushrooms, load these into a black cab and then deliver them to her customers. "I think I made more money then than we do now," she added with a smile.
Today's business is far more sophisticated. While local mushroom gatherers still beat a path to her door, from March when the St George's mushrooms can first appear to the brown chanterelles of the late winter, her business is now predominantly based on sourcing the best wild and farmed mushrooms from around the world, sorting and preparing them, and repackaging them for the van which leaves at 2.30am for restaurants and hotels across London.
These include chanterelles from Turkey and Canada; morels from Oregon and France; girolles from Lithuania; shiitake mushrooms from the Far East and the hugely popular shimeji mushrooms from China, all of which are in secure cold stores in a former garage in the 16 acre paddock that surrounds her house.
All of which leaves Mrs Tee with considerably less time for picking wild mushrooms herself. "It's not as easy as it was but I still love it. I remember on Christmas Eve 2005 I went out and picked 75 kilos of pied de moutons mushrooms in three hours. That's a lot of mushrooms. And this year has been very good for this type because there was rain at the end of June but there will be hardly any chanterelles, and there weren't any last year, because of the recent dry spell and an early frost."
As I sat listening to Mrs Tee, I began to appreciate that to acquire her knowledge requires patience and an almost maternal instinct. "There's great pleasure in going out and finding your old friends back in the same place. And you know that if there not here this year then they will be back next year unless the woods are cut down in which case it will be two to three hundred years before they reappear," she explained. "Although rather like someone who works in a chocolate factory and doesn't touch chocolate, I hardly eat wild mushrooms any more. I prefer to pick, sort and talk about them."
Was this, I asked, because of an encounter with something even she should not have eaten? "Yes, but they weren't my own mushrooms. I once had the misfortune to eat girolles from Zimbabwe and they gave me a severe bellyache. These should never have been imported into the UK, and it took me three years to get them banned, but whenever there is a shortage in the market here they tend to reappear."
As on many other topics I would imagine, Mrs Tee has firm opinions on how to avoid any possible risk from eating wild mushrooms. The first is to keep the different wild mushrooms separately in different bags. The second is not to eat anything that you have even the slightest doubt about as the physical differences between the edible and the inedible can be very small indeed. Her final two comments were, however, much more profound.
"The most important fact to remember is that while I obviously think all types of mushrooms are wonderful and chefs create some extraordinary dishes out from them, one shouldn't really eat too many of them at any one time. It has been proven that they can be twice as difficult to digest as any other foodstuff. They do make you feel full very quickly.
"The second is that, in my opinion, it's the combination of wild mushrooms and alcohol that can upset people rather than just the mushrooms on their own. I know I will occasionally have a plate of wild mushrooms on toast for breakfast and feel fine but then if I have a few with a steak and some red wine in the evening I won't feel so good."