Words & Photographs by Karen Yates
Pull on your wellies and head for the nearest outdoor space, whether it’s a garden, park, playground or common. October is the perfect time to forage, and even the tiniest green space can be home to mushrooms and other edible foods, according to those in the know at Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa in Sussex, just 1 hour 40 minutes from London.
What appears to be a medieval manor with outbuildings was, in fact, built in late 1920s and early 1930s using materials salvaged from historic buildings. The result is a luxurious hotel frequented, for those in need of a celeb fix, by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson before their split, Russell Crowe and David Jason, who I’m told arrives by helicopter. Even Charlie Chaplin has stayed here. My room, Sheeplands, was the size of a suite and charmingly old-fashioned with 15th-century beams, four-poster bed, bath and shower, all mod cons (internet access, TV), fluffy white towels and gorgeous-smelling spa goodies. So far, so luxe.
A stroll across the grounds, past wandering resident peacocks and cages of hams curing in the trees (not to be confused), for canapés including little glasses of nutty-tasting warm nettle soup and Barkham Blue cheese and pear chutney on toasts, with homemade elderflower sparkling wine or local Ridgeview sparkling wine.
Next was a talk by Debra Wood, otherwise known as the Sussex forager, before a supper of, where possible, foraged and local produce. “I started foraging as a child with my mother,” explained Debra. “I have scars on my forehead after falling out of trees picking mistletoe.” Debra is clearly a passionate forager, but she stresses the importance of knowing what you are doing. “Eat a death cap or panther cap and you’ll be on dialysis for the rest of your life. Or worse,” she added ominously. To avoid eating killer a mushroom, you’ll need a good book, with photographs rather than illustrations. Roger Phillips is Debra’s favourite, and she also recommends the River Cottage series and Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Collins, £4.99).
Debra’s foraging year starts in March, when she finds wild garlic in damp woodlands; eat the long leaves and white flowers, not the bulbs. Next she sources sea kale, which is protected so never help yourself from a site of scientific interest and then take only a little from each plant to allow regrowth. Next she collects marsh samphire; cut with kitchen scissors and never pull from the ground. A little later in the year, Debra finds wild fennel (again, eat the fronds, not the bulb), followed by sea purslane, which is salty and crunchy, a bit like samphire. “If you have a garden,” she continued, “young dandelion leaves are delicious in a mixed salad with vinaigrette. Peppery ground elder, loathed by gardeners, is also great tossed in a salad – it tastes like celery.”
As for mushrooms, these have arrived very late this year (but now, the first weekend October, a week after I visited Bailiffscourt, is set to be the best mushrooming weekend of 2012). Mushrooming is legal only if you are a mushroom-picker, which you can prove by having a mushroom knife – look for one with a blade at one end (always cut, never pull the stems) and a brush at the other. Debra’s remaining kit comprises a broom handle with a nail through the top used for hooking elderberries in trees, and washing-up gloves for picking nettles. I suspect this lady is fairly low-maintenance.
Our table of serious foodies was enjoying her talk, but other tables were becoming rowdy with hunger. So Debra decided to quit while she was ahead – no matter, we had her to ourselves for our foraging tomorrow morning, and could learn more then.
Our starter was Ashdown-forest-foraged mushrooms on toasted brioche with wood sorrel and crème fraiche, accompanied by Blandy’s Sercial 10-Year-Old Dry Madeira. The meaty-tasting mushrooms worked well with the Madeira.
Next up was fillet of south coast sea bream with marsh samphire and seaweed tempura, served with a glass of La Segreta Bianco 2011, Planeta, Sicily. This peachy white was a good match for the fish.
The main course was fabulous local venison Wellington with roasted crab apples and elderberry with a port sauce, accompanied by Los Caminos Merlot 2010, Chile. A delight, and everyone agreed the dish of the night.
Dessert was quince crème brûlée with blackberry sorbet and rosehip cordial ‘bellini’. Refreshingly good, and despite everyone saying they couldn’t possibly eat dessert we all did a marvellous job.
The following morning, our group headed off with executive chef Martin Hadden and Debra (pictured below, with foraged leaves) to seek out our lunch. “I’ve got back-up, just in case,” said Martin reassuringly. In the forest, which you can spot from the road by looking out for leather-clad bikers tucking into bacon sarnies outside their favourite local cafe, we walked on fern-carpeted ground, the sun streaming through leaves above our head, and soon found some pied de mouton, or hedgehog mushrooms, a much-coveted edible mushroom that hadn’t been munched by squirrels, slugs or snails. We also found several edible but not so delicious mushrooms, which Debra tasted but Martin rejected. “If it’s not great to eat, don’t bother,” he said. So we didn’t.
Back to the hotel and while Martin prepared lunch, we walked 100 or so metres though a wooded path to the beach, tasting hogweed, described by Debra as “poor man’s asparagus”, and elderberries, which had paired so well with last night’s venison, as we walked. On the pebble beach, we found seaweed galore, none of which is poisonous in the UK according to Debra, sea beet (also know as sea spinach), ground elder and sea kale (pictured below).
Back to the hotel, and for the final part of the foraging weekend Martin showed us how to create a dish from our foraged finds, with a little help from his back-up supplies.
As we tucked into smoked salmon – Martin smokes his own salmon in a shed in the hotel’s vast grounds – and cucumber sandwiches, he made a cep and sea spinach tart, with an accompanying cep sauce by the celebrated Nico Ladenis, with whom Martin trained in the early 1990s.
Martin Hadden’s cep and sea spinach tart with a fried egg and cep sauce
450g rough puff pastry
450g sea (or normal) spinach
12 ceps (or porcini mushrooms; you can also use foraged, fresh or frozen ones)
wood sorrel, to garnish (optional)
Roll out the pastry into discs and prick with a fork. Preheat the oven to 180C. Gently cook the spinach in garlic butter and set aside. Fry the ceps in garlic butter. Arrange the spinach and ceps on the pastry and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.
In a large saucepan, gently fry all the eggs in garlic butter and put one on top of each tart. To finish, spoon a little warm cep sauce over the top of each tart, garnish with wood sorrel if using and serve immediately.
For the rough puff pastry
(Shop bought is fine, but choose one made with butter)
500g strong white flour
150ml cold water
Sift the flour with a pinch of salt, chop the butter into small chunks and loosely run them into the flour. Add the water and mix to a rough dough, then refrigerate for 20 minutes. Roll out into a rectangle and put in one puff paste turn, give a quarter turn and then another puff paste turn. Chill for 20 minutes, then use.
For the cep sauce
100g very finely chopped ceps
1 shallot, very finely chopped
1 tsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
125ml Noilly Prat
100ml jus (reduced stock, optional)
250ml double cream
Gently fry the ceps and shallot in the butter until completely caramelised. Add the tomato purée, bay leaf, Noilly Prat, Madeira and jus. Allow to reduce by two thirds.
Add the cream, bring to the boil, add the water and check the seasoning. Cover the pan with clingfilm and leave to infuse until cool. Pass through a double muslin cloth. Serve warm with the cep tarts.
Rooms start at £210 per night for two people sharing a standard room, including breakfast and full use of spa facilities. For more information visit www.hshotels.co.uk, or call 01903 723511.
To arrange foraging outings in Sussex, email Debra at email@example.com
The London Foodie travelled from London Victoria to Littlehampton on Southern Trains; www.southernrailway.com
Words and photographs by Karen Yates
Freelance food writer and editor Karen Yates has written numerous features, reviews and interviews for glossy magazines including Country Living, Coast, Food and Travel, Fork and BBC Good Food. See more of her cuttings at here.