Roger Phillips

23rd March 2017

Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

23rd March 2017

Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

On a bright late autumn afternoon, I arrive at Roger Phillips’s home in Pimlico. It is a gorgeous flat over several levels at the top of a listed Victorian building on Eccleston Square. The square holds a magnificent garden, tended by Roger, who revived it when he moved in 24 years ago. He has planted hundreds of rare plants here and the garden is a thing of great beauty.

A horticulturalist and prolific food writer, Roger is one of Britain’s foremost experts on wild foods. His 1981 book Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe is a classic and has been reprinted nearly 50 times (he has sold more than 4.5 million copies of his books overall). In person, he is impossible to confuse with anyone else: red spectacles, white beard, a Turkmen hat and a shirt peppered with toadstools that promise the sweetest psychedelic dreams.

Walking up the stairs, I clock shelves with numerous apothecary’s bottles, frosted with thick, fluffy dust (“We used to regularly go to the skip,” he tells me, “and we rescued many things including all these beautiful bottles.”). Upstairs is a set-up I have never seen before. Here is the mottled dusty rose of a kitchen, and to the left lies a low double bed – covered in an Indian Kutch tapestry, Roger’s childhood toys (from the 1930s) and a sweet silver cat. The walls are adorned with photographs, paintings and Roger’s sketches of his family. There is also an antique low wooden chair (“To deliver lambs,” he explains).

The table is clad with a cloth depicting imaginary galaxies. On it sits a strange machine with a handle, lots of attractive misshapen apples and a cylindrical dehydrator. His wife Nicky Foy, a teacher, is at work, so it’s just Roger this time, coring, peeling and drying apples they have grown at their country home in Wiltshire. Besides writing – and he has published around 50 books – Roger also paints and makes films about art; he is a professional photographer and a fantastic cook. His energy is enviable.

Continued below...

What was the house that you grew up in like?

It was in Uxbridge [west London], where my father worked. It was during the war, and when the blitz came along and the Germans were bombing like hell, I went to live with my grandparents.

How old were you then? Do you remember details?

Seven, something like that. I was a kid, I thought it was exciting [chuckles]. So I went to live with my grandparents (Eddie and Sally) on a farm in Herefordshire. It was a very small farm, my grandfather had only one helper and he milked about 18 cows everyday by hand. He never had a holiday, you never do when you are a single farmer. We once managed to get him away for one day. But he couldn’t be parted from his cows really.

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What was your grandmother like? Was she a good cook?

She was wonderful, she was the inspiration of the family. She was quite a good cook. We had particularly good mushroom seasons in that period of time – I don’t know why, maybe rainfall – but we would collect only field mushrooms. She wouldn’t eat anything else. She used to say: “Oh you cannot eat these! They grow in woods.” And I would have to throw them away.

Nothing other than field mushrooms was allowed?

No! Because the English were very conservative about mushrooms in those days. Nobody quite knows why but they were terrified about mushrooms. No one would eat Boletus or anything like that.

The English were very conservative about mushrooms in those days. Nobody quite knows why but they were terrified about mushrooms

Why would that be?

There may be a couple of reasons. One is that early nature writers, the “old herbals,” described mushrooms as noxious, poisonous, growing out of the dead. They thought they were really vile, so the English were trained not to touch mushrooms. Then Robert Graves, the poet, came up with another theory. He decided that the Druids, in their time, reserved the collecting of the mushrooms to themselves and forbade others to eat them. The idea was that they were reserving the “druggy mushrooms” and when there was an event like the eclipse of the moon, the Druids would get everybody together and they would give them the psilocybin or whatever it was, and everyone would see hallucinations and Druids would claim: “We made the moon disappear.” Of course, it is a speculation, but perhaps they were using it to their advantage.

When did you start writing about mushrooms?

My first book was on wild flowers and that was published, I think, in 1977. And before that I did food photography. I must have shot 50 cookbooks, but not my own at that time, other people’s. I did a lot of work for magazines – Country Living and things like that.

We go down into one of the many rooms filled with books. Each one exists in organised chaos. I want to stay here for hours, just exploring…

How many cookbooks do you think you have?

Thousands.

You can eat tulip petals, you can eat any kind of rose petal, unsprayed. A lot of ordinary garden plants can be eaten
Roger on his favourite kitchen ingredients, objects and books

And how many books have you written?

About 45 published by other people and five self-published. First I did wild flowers, then I did trees, then ferns and mosses, then mushrooms, and then I teamed up with a botanist called Martin Ricks and we did some more together.

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Do you feel like you expanded the use of mushrooms in the UK?

Mushrooms were totally unpopular at the time. When I said to Pan I wanted a book on mushrooms, I was amazed they said yes, quite honestly, as nobody was interested in mushrooms, nobody would buy the bloody book. But they said yes. Initially I thought there would be around 300-400 mushrooms. After a couple of years I went back to them and said there were 600 mushrooms, and again a year later I went back and there were a thousand. So the book kept growing, because I didn’t know how many mushrooms there were. I joined the mycological society and became friends with a chief mycologist at Kew, so anything I could not identify, I took to him. So they have all been double-checked at the top level.

How many of them are edible?

A reasonable amount. I think they licensed edible mushrooms in Sweden and there must be about 300 that they reckon are edible.

Was the book successful?

Yes it was, reprinted almost 50 times since it came out in 1981, I believe. It was number three in Sunday Times bestseller list. It was quite something for a book on such an obscure subject1.

Has it inspired people to extend their mushroom-picking horizons?

Yes, I believe it was responsible for a lot more people being interested in mushrooms in every way. Poisonous, hallucinogenic, and edible of course. After that, because I was so influenced by the farm that I grew up on with my grandparents, I did Wild Food. That was coming from my knowledge of the countryside and making things to eat. During the war, my father and I went out and shot rabbits and pigeons – and that is what we ate. Even on the farm, we would have these chickens, but you know the government counted them, so you weren’t allowed to eat even your own [mischievous smile]. But of course, every time they counted them there were fewer and fewer and we used to say the foxes got them.

What wild foods other than mushrooms did you used to collect and what do you collect now?

Now, I love elders. We make the drink from the flowers, but also the berries are terrific – too strong to eat, they contain a lot of tannin, but if you boil them and then strain the juice with a bit of sugar to help preserve them, they make a delicious drink.

What about sorrel? I am obsessed with it.

Yes, quite a lot of sorrel, which of course you shouldn’t eat too much of as it causes bladder stones. But I would put some leaves in a salad or a soup. I also have a standard recipe for it: a cup of onions, a cup of potatoes and a cup of something green – it could be sorrel – and you cook it down with salt. That way you get a potage for anything. Such a simple, basic recipe.

I think you should write a cookbook.

I would like to do a simpler mushroom book, just on the edible and poisonous ones, not the whole thousand. I lead foraging courses. At the Good Life Festival [in Wales] a hundred people came out mushrooming with me. A little boy found a huge beefsteak mushroom. It does look like a marbled steak, and when you cut it, it bleeds, virtually, and your hands end up red.

What is your favourite mushroom?

Apart from truffle, it is trompette de la mort. They can be found here in the UK, and are sometimes difficult to find as they are obviously black, but if you find one, once you get down – you find hundreds. I cook them with blood sausage [see Recipe].

Your house is full of colour. And this whole conjoined kitchen and bedroom situation is incredible.

Well when Nicky and I started out, we lived in a one-bedroom flat. And you know, if you are in bed, and you don’t want to come out of it, why should you? If you are not too well and someone comes round, you can still talk to them, as it’s the main room.

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Roger and his daughter Leila

Do you cook every day?

Yes we do. We are anti-supermarkets. We go to a little farmer’s market on Saturday [see Address Book] and we try to get enough stuff to last all week.

Roger takes us through to his balcony beyond the large French windows of his kitchen-bedroom. I try the chillies he is growing: they are mild but extremely fragrant and flavoursome.

Are you a vegetarian?

No nooooo! I love meat! And there is a reason for that. I went into a vegetarian boarding school [St Christopher’s School in Hampstead] from 11 to 17. So during term time, I had no meat.

The scent of the British summer truffles is exactly the same as the Italian white truffle, but the flavour, so say the Italians, is not as good. But to me that is irrelevant, as with all truffles it is the overwhelming sexy scent that drives people mad

Do you and Nicky cook together?

Sometimes, but it’s difficult. I think it’s much better to cook on your own, because you disagree. I tend to be very lavish, I love to throw things in, you know, half a bottle of something. I overdo things. Nicky is a bit more cautious.

What’s your favourite meal?

I am crazy about barbecued meat, so I suppose barbecued rib of beef on the bone would be my favourite.

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Do you eat out much in restaurants?

Ehhhh, yes we do [see Address Book]. There is a restaurant down in Wiltshire that actually specialises in truffles2. I have to tell you this story. The chef and owner of the restaurant rang me up and said “This guy has come in. I think he’s got a truffle. I said: “I’m on my way! Here I come!” And it turns out he really did find a truffle. And so I went with the guy to the wood where he’d found it and we found another 25 truffles on that day. Since then he planted more woods and now he finds thousands of truffles. Truffles grow with beech and hazel principally. This guy had retired and planted a beech wood, but the soil was so poor, all chalk. To survive in soil that’s so poor the trees need truffles – they need each other. Poor soil encourages truffles to grow.

There are so many wild things that chefs have probably not caught on to yet

Are British truffles are as good as Italian ones?

We call them summer truffles. The scent is exactly the same as the Italian white truffle, but the flavour, so say the Italians, is not as good. But to me that is irrelevant, as with all truffles it is the overwhelming sexy scent that drives people mad.

What are the five important ingredients in your kitchen?

Sea beets, dried mushrooms, apples, mint and dandelion.

What about beetroot?

Yes, though really it is the same plant as sea beet, developed probably 4000 years ago. It’s just that if you dig sea beet you will not find any root. Chard is also the same plant as sea beet and beetroot.

We rarely think about these connections.

Yes, and of course, it was ancient man that developed them, like carrots. Wild carrot is the most common weed on the road side. It is all over the country, all over Europe, all over America, everywhere. Someone 5000 years ago developed the root. But of course you can eat the leaves and the flowers, tasting so wonderfully of carrot. And you can put them in your salad, and have a carrot-flavoured salad. There are so many wild things that chefs have probably not caught on to yet.

For more about Roger’s work, go to www.rogersmushrooms.com

Follow Roger: Instagram | Twitter

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  1. Roger has sold more than 4.5 million books in total.
  2. he’s referring to The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

Posted 23rd March 2017

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Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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