Foraging in Petworth

At this time of year nature provides us with extraordinary gifts. Jenny Mark-Bell spent a day foraging with a local expert before enjoying a feast prepared by wild food enthusiast Stuart Dove, Chef at The Leconfield in Petworth

I meet forager Debra Wood in The Leconfield’s dining room. We are somewhat unlikely patrons, being clad in wax jackets and boots rather than the smart garb of the diners. Debra’s infectious enthusiasm quickly dispels any doubts I have about leaving this sophisticated dining space to spend a drizzly Tuesday barging through bracken.

“I’m a real country girl,” says Debra, “and I started foraging with my mother when I was about six.” The first stop is a public footpath near the village of Byworth, where Debra will gather rose hips and haws. The bright crimson hips are abundant, and we load them into baskets for chef Stuart Dove to transform into cordial and jelly.

As we walk back to Debra’s Jeep she picks fragrant fronds of lemon balm. This looks similar to mint, and is a member of the same family. Later we drink it as an infusion with a wonderful clean, almost medicinal taste.

Next, we travel to a wood on the outskirts of Petworth, where the ground is littered with spindly sweet chestnuts. A pair of bushy tails disappear into a tree as we approach, but the squirrels have barely made an impact. The raw chestnuts, when peeled, have a creamier, nuttier taste than when roasted, but equally tasty.

In a mixed pine and deciduous wood near the village of Fittleworth Debra picks wild oregano, which has a fantastic aroma – much stronger than the stuff we buy dried in jars. We are hunting for ceps, or porcini as they are also known. These have apparently been elusive thus far, because of the unseasonably dry weather – “We need a good downpour,” says Debra. Nonetheless we find a solitary mushroom under some bracken. Lots of other types of fungus are sprouting away merrily – inedible fly agarics and earthballs, mainly – but our luck has run out with the ceps.

After a long trek with nothing to declare, we find the ground carpeted with wood sorrel. This tastes fabulous raw, like watercress dressed with lemon juice. Debra drives back via a roadside apple tree, and we load plastic bags with the beautiful fruit, some of which is already rotting on the ground.

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There’s nothing like a long country walk for working up an appetite, and sure enough Debra and I are both ravenous when we get to the restaurant. Chef Stuart Dove, who has been at the restaurant since it opened a year ago, has taken his interest in wild food to the next level this year by offering a special forager’s menu.

The rose hip cordial is surprisingly tropical, reminiscent of pear and mango, and with a silken consistency. We sip it while Stuart whips up a wonderful starter of smoked trout pat� with Avruga caviar, cucumber and horseradish salsa and a mini caraway cottage loaf. The foraged ingredients are our wood sorrel, wild horseradish and the apple wood used to smoke the fish, and the flavours zing with freshness.

While he preps a broth made from Debra’s foraged seaweed, Stuart explains that his experience brought him to a greater understanding of British food culture. He has worked in capital cities including Stockholm and London, as well as NYC’s Meatpacking District, and amassed plenty of experience along the way. “I’ve been cooking nearly 18 years now,” he says. “And now I’m comfortable with the British food culture where we focus on locally-sourced food. The foraging gives us a new perspective on that – we have quite a traditional angle because of our clientele, but using modern cooking techniques, like slow cooking, foams and gels.”

Stuart’s seaweed broth is a fine example of this marriage of ancient and modern. Inspired by a traditional Irish broth, he’s adapted it to make the best of wild ingredients. The accompaniment of brown shrimp mayonnaise came about because when he came to wash the seaweed, he discovered lots of tiny shrimps. We scoop up the crustaceans with seaweed crackers, before moving on to the seaweed, mussel and barley broth.

My favourite of Stuart’s dishes is a true celebration of the season. He saut�s a variety of thickly sliced wild mushrooms and fries them in butter with garlic and shallots. Crispy parsnip and potato rosti, rich, almost chocolaty chestnut cream and wild oregano finish this wonderfully earthy autumn dish.

 Debra and Stuart make a formidable team, both food experts in their own way. This has been an educational – and entertaining – day. I’m heading home with a bag bursting with seasonal bounty, and a head full of ideas.

Try it for yourself The Leconfield is running foraging days for groups of four every month, apart from January and February.The day will include a cooking demonstration and three course meal with wines to match.

The Leconfield, New Street, Petworth

01798 345111

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