My colleague Rowley Leigh's eloquent eulogy to the morel mushroom a fortnight ago prompted me to make yet another call to Michael Hyams whom for the past five years I have known by the name of the company he runs – the Mushroom Man (www.mushroomman.co.uk).
Early April should have been the start of the wild mushroom season across Europe – a season that begins with morels and St George's mushrooms from Turkey and Bulgaria and then moves steadily west until the late summer brings girolles and chanterelles from Scotland and Norway followed by the English autumn harvest. But this year Europe's long, cold winter had delayed everything, about which Hyams was totally non-plussed.
"What is most wonderful about my business," Hyams explained over a cup of milky coffee in the café at New Covent Garden Market in south west London at 10am, the end of a working day that begins at 11pm, "is that the wild mushrooms depend entirely on Nature. Chefs have been asking me for weeks when will the European ceps and morels start so that they can put them on their menus and the only answer I have is that I just don't know. It all depends on the weather. There are no pesticides and there are not, as there in strawberry cultivation for example, miles and miles of poly tunnels involved. Wild mushrooms are very politically correct," he added with a smile.
I was badly in need of a hot drink because I had just spent 45 minutes in Mushroom Man's extremely cool refrigerated lock up warehouse being given a mushroom lecture. The unit is kept at 2 degrees centigrade but the temperature had fallen further because that day's business was already over. The boxes of wild and cultivated mushrooms were already en route to kitchens across the country for soups, pasta dishes, risottos and sauces to go with meat and fish.
Despite his passion for wild mushrooms Hyams would be the first to admit that it would not be feasible to build the business that he has done - Mushroom Man's turnover has mushroomed eightfold to its current sales of over £3 million managed by a staff of six - if his business depended solely on the whims of Nature. Instead, he handles the full range of wild and cultivated mushrooms which take in shipments from as far afield as China and Canada, but the ratio of cultivated to wild mushrooms within his store changes throughout the year. During my visit the proportion of cultivated to the far more expensive wild mushroom was about 70/30 (with a small range of some tinned, frozen and even dried morels from the Himalayas) but this ratio would be reversed over the coming three months.
"These are pieds bleus," Hyams began, "the only mushroom here you must not eat raw. They're grown in caves in the Loire, caves that have been excavated over the years for building the Loire's châteaux. I take a couple of pallets a week of these and the grower has made a very successful tourist business out of the caves (www.le-champignon.com). These are shimeji which I buy from a Japanese grower in Belgium and are incredibly popular now – I see them being used a lot by TV chefs."
Hyams pointed to several different varieties of cultivated mushrooms before opening a polystyrene bag of eyringi, Chinese cultivated mushrooms which he described as "looking good and not too expensive". Across the centre of the room were shiitake mushrooms, again from China; horse mushrooms from Holland; yellow oyster mushrooms and sacks of enoki mushrooms, an essential ingredient in Japanese soups and stocks.
Pointing to a large sack of oyster mushrooms from Hungary, from where he buys a truck load of mushrooms a week, Hyams explained the growing importance of eastern Europe as a source of cultivated and wild mushrooms. "The UK used to grow a fair amount of cultivated mushrooms but then the Dutch got involved and undercut British growers. Now the Dutch are facing increasing competition from Poland in particular and I hear that several Dutch companies are setting up their own production plants in Poland."
My rapidly chilling spirits were promptly revived as we approached the stacks of the far more expensive wild mushrooms, mushrooms that were distinguished not just by their more varied colour and shape (and if I put my nose down close enough by their earthy aroma) but also by their number. While there were hundreds of boxes of the cultivated mushrooms, there were just scores of boxes of wild mushrooms, although each of them in suitably far more natural wooden boxes.
"These are morels from Turkey and these are chanterelles from Canada which have come to me via the Rungis market in Paris. France has traditionally been the centre of the trade in wild mushrooms because that has traditionally been the source of the biggest demand with the mushrooms being traded via Rungis and Brive on the western Massif Central. But as in so many other aspects of food and wine France seems to be losing this predominance as the demand for wild mushrooms spreads worldwide.
"These are mousserons from Bulgaria as are these, a slightly different species, called St George's mushrooms which best illustrate how prices fluctuate so wildly. A fortnight ago over St George's Day these were fetching £20 a kilo but soon they will be down to no more than £5. Finally, these are girolles from Portugal which last most of the year although there will be a huge influx of these from eastern Europe for the next couple of months."
What has driven Mushroom Man's business is not just Hyams' buying skills and contacts but the work of a couple of his packers throughout the night. "While we are taking in the new deliveries and sending out the bigger orders there are three warehousemen who make up much smaller baskets of mushrooms to meet the price points that are crucial for chefs to put these relatively expensive ingredients on their menu. They can be made up of six or eight different mushrooms and the proportion of cultivated to wild will depend on the style of the restaurant."
Back in the café Hyams revealed two furthers aspects of life as a mushroom man that he had not anticipated when he fell into partnership with the company's founder, Phill Dean. "I had no idea that dealing with wild mushrooms would prove to be so sexy," he explained, "everyone seems fascinated by them and the chefs who come here like Brett Graham from The Ledbury and Tom Aikens really seem to enjoy discussing them and thinking of new ways of preparing them. And from a personal perspective the change has been extraordinary. I spent 25 years supplying restaurant with fruit and vegetables but at 52 you can't carry sacks of potatoes or onions that easily and there's not that much profit in them individually. Now, I can carry more value with a couple of boxes of wild mushrooms in one hand than I ever could when I was a lot younger. The only problem with this job is that I have to get to work for 11pm every evening."