'I found I was on to a winner. Once a restaurant starts to offer wild fungi, it usually has to carry on'

Daniel Butler talks to Clive Houlder, professional mushroom picker

"Ha! See that?" Clive Houlder stoops quickly, his hand disappearing into the leaf litter next to the hedge. He straightens almost immediately, holding out a moist brown dome. "That is a cep - Boletus edulis - one of the best eating mushrooms. Come on, there will be plenty more around - this is a record-breaking year."

While Houlder, one of Britain's rarest professionals, the wild mushroom picker, fills his basket, he admits to mixed emotions about the glut: "To be honest I prefer it when there aren't too many around - what I love is the long walks looking for them," he says. "At the moment there are so many I find myself in just one place, filling basket after basket before walking back to the car because they're too heavy to carry - in fact I've got 40kg waiting for dispatch and the price is about to plummet."

Houlder stumbled upon his unusual trade by chance. During the Eighties he was a restaurateur in Essex, but decided to move outlets just as property prices peaked. The result was two mortgages and bankruptcy, and he began suffering from serious stress, for which the doctor prescribed long solitary walks.

It was during this low ebb that he saw a programme about Indian women picking morels for sale in Europe. These distinctive honeycombed fungi were growing on his bonfire so, acting on an impulse, he phoned around his former contacts. Le Gavroche invited him to bring in a sample: on seeing the basket, Michel Roux immediately offered him pounds 100 and asked if he could supply any others. He was shown a selection of the most edible and recognised the St George's mushroom from his walks: the following week he was on the train back to King's Lynn with another pounds 200.

As word spread, so business took off. Houlder still makes weekly trips to sell mushrooms to top London restaurants, but the bulk of his business is now local, supplying a growing band of the more adventurous regional eateries. Rococo's in King's Lynn is a case in point. A Michelin "Red M' restaurant, it serves sauteed wild fungi on a fresh brioche as a starter "That's the great thing about mushrooms," enthuses Houlder. "It's almost a case of the simpler the recipe, the better the taste."

Although most gastronomes rate the cep as the peak of fungal perfection, Houlder says chefs prefer a mixture - and a variety of colours and textures, too. These, he says, with a smile, may not always be the best eaters, but they look fantastic on the plate. "By weight they may be more expensive than fillet steak," he says. "But they need only be used judiciously and have a wonderful flavour. Use them for anything from a starter to the garnish for ice-cream."

He is often unable to satisfy demand and as a result, prices are high. Although he sells most of the fruits of his labours to local restaurants at pounds 15 a kilo, any surplus is snapped up by Covent Garden wholesalers: "By the time they've reached a greengrocer or market stall the price will be pounds 25, while God knows what a restaurant would charge."

Obviously Houlder's earnings yo-yo according to the season and weather. March is always the worst month - it's the only one when there are no edible species available - but this year the dry summer hit fungi particularly badly: "At times like that I have to supplement my own collecting with mushrooms brought in from the Continent," he admits. "During really bad periods I have to add a percentage of cultivated oyster and shitake mushrooms - simply to keep the price realistic."

At the moment, this is the last thing on his mind: "Many species are out in huge numbers - in fact the combination of the dry summer and recent rain makes it one of the best autumns ever," he says. A day's collecting in his patch of north Norfolk regularly results in over 15kg of wild fungi.

What these will be varies throughout the year, which begins in April with the St George's mushroom. This then blends into morels and fairy- ring champignons, followed by the autumn's profusion of ceps and other boleti. Although Houlder says fungi can be found anywhere at any time, as a crude rule of thumb, short grass is best during the summer months, and woods come into their own in the autumn.

So what of the famous reluctance of the British to eat wild fungi? Unlike our Continental neighbours who consume them by the ton, we are used to branding anything not safely labelled and stacked on a supermarket shelf as a "toadstool". According to Houlder all this changed with the culinary new wave which swept into the country during the Eighties. "I found I was on to a winner," he says. "Once a restaurant starts to offer wild mushrooms, it usually has to carry on because of the demand."

But even experts have their failings. The holy grail of mushroom pickers is the British truffle and Clive Houlder has never found one. But he's looking.

An excellent guide to picking and eating wild fungi is The Ultimate Mushroom Book by Peter Jordan and Steven Wheeler (Lorenz Books, pounds 16.95), published next week.

See page 16, for best fungal forays.

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