After any trip to New Covent Garden, it’s jaw-dropping to recall just how drastically the food landscape has changed.
Take mushrooms, for example – back in the 1970’s there was a miserable choice in Britain, just your standard buttons. Now there’s a cornucopia of wild, exotic and cultivated types, from pricey morels to pink oysters.
The Mushroom Man
For this improvement, one man deserves significant credit. Phill Dean is a Market veteran and was the first to crank up imports. "This is high mushroom season," he explains, "the natural time when they really grow."
Now semi-retired, I met him one misty morning. As a specialist wholesaler, The Mushroom Man sells the full range and kicked off the concept of offering mixed mushroom boxes. These are sold in grades A-C, with AA grade showcasing more pricey wild types.
At this time of year, others wilds mushrooms include mouserron, chanterelle, pied de mouton, trompette and the last of the ceps. Cultivated, frozen and dried mushrooms are available year-round. (Other wholesalers such as Bruce White and The French Garden now also offer mushrooms at Covent Garden.)
Elsewhere on the Market, there’s a healthy choice of winter staples. Citrus is prime and abundant, including Amalfi lemons. Expect other treats including fennel, aubergines, Globe artichokes, chestnuts, salsify, squashes, kales, beetroots, chard, cauliflowers and Brussel tops. For apples and pears, there are Cox, Braeburn, russets, Comice and Conference. Mangoes and papayas from Brazil are excellent but pricey. Top-end grapes include Muscats.
'Appreciation of gastronomy'
Phill started off four decades ago selling button mushrooms direct from the farm into high-end London restaurants and hotels. He started importing wild mushrooms in earnest at the end of the 90’s: "I hit the scene just as it was beginning. Celebrity chefs were making the public aware of wild mushrooms – they had always been fashionable on the Continent."
Now he and partner Michael Hyams import around 30 tonnes of agaricus (white and brown common mushrooms), 15 tonnes of wild and exotic and 5 tonnes each of oyster and shiitake mushrooms monthly. I ask Phill what his has enjoyed most over his years: "The camaraderie, and the gratification that I have contributed towards the broader appreciation of gastronomy, to the British public."
As I leave, I encounter grocer Jo Neill loading up a large truck. He makes the trip down from Suffolk twice a week to buy for two market stalls: "My boss is a bit picky – he likes good clean gear." They drive down from Sudbury in Suffolk twice a week, a round trip of about eight hours including buying and loading. It just goes to show that New Covent Garden is well worth the trip.