Foraging isn’t a new phenomenon. Taught out of necessity over the millennia, the practice was mislaid with the advent of the supermarket and accessible, unseasonal food. In the west, secure in our food supply, we’ve forgotten the richness and diversity of the natural larder, albeit less table-ready. The natural corollary to shooting, stalking and fishing, foraging offers the satisfaction of gathering your own vegetables without the work. Some careful plant identification, seasonal awareness, a sharp knife and a container and you can help yourself to a seemingly endless diversity of flavours for nothing.
Whether driven by the economy or a move for local, sustainable and seasonal foods, foraging has become trendy. Just because we can buy raspberries at Christmas or fresh beans that are better travelled than most jetsetters, should we? Eating has taken on a new morality, championed by a generation of chefs, restaurateurs and broadcasters (from Raymond Blanc and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Mark Hix and Nathan Outlaw) for whom seasonal, local British produce, whether cultivated or wild, is something to celebrate.
The Pig in Brockenhurst, Hampshire is the latest evolution in local, sustainable, seasonal food. By describing it as a “restaurant with rooms”, co-director David Elton firmly champions the priorities of this charming establishment. “It’s food first and foremost, but un-dull and entirely not predictable,” he explains over deliciously irreverent “piggy bits”. Elton, Robin Hutson and Jim Ratcliffe have collaborated here as they did at Lime Wood, The Pig’s big sister, but their goals are different. “We had a vision, something that wasn’t country house hotel or gastro pub, upscale but not luxury, and value,” Elton explains.
This drive and vision to find a new way, to put fresh food picked that morning on the plate at lunch and dinner is a challenge realised by a dedicated, motivated and talented team. “Our head chef, James Golding, has the kitchen gardener, Mike Kleyn, and our full-time forager, Garry Eveleigh, as his lieutenants. At their daily meeting he adapts the small menu to reflect what is perfectly ripe or what Garry has collected.”
Eveleigh indubitably gives The Pig its unpredictable edge and frisson of something different and new. He arrives on the formal lawns of the hotel burdened with samphire foraged from the coast for the day’s menu. Once his wicker baskets are emptied, we set out across the forest in search of nature’s bounty. Eveleigh has been haunting the clearings and glades of the New Forest since he was a boy, accumulating knowledge about the forest and its coastline on the Solent that makes him a compelling guide and teacher.
“I never leave a forage empty handed,” Eveleigh smiles. From wild garlic and tender young nettles through dandelion leaves and elderflowers to fruits, berries and nuts, there’s always something delicious to discover in the landscape. But autumn belongs to the mushroom, and when you talk about mushrooms he lights up.
“Finding mushrooms is a matter of thinking like a mushroom,” he assures me. Each of our target species is going to require a different mind-set due to its climatic preferences. Add to this early autumnal drought and the odds of success are diminished. “Last year was an incredible year for mushrooms,” Eveleigh observes philosophically. “Some of the rarest mushrooms were really plentiful. This year will be different, but then each one is.
“I used to meet Italians here in the woods. They’d come down from London to pick porcini, whole families, and they knew just what they were after,” Eveleigh reminisces. “It was just me and the Italians out on the forest in porcini season.”
Today, he’s more likely to be found leading a rag-tag band of The Pig guests. However, he is keen to pass on an awareness concerning the pressures put on the resource by the resurgence of foraging. Evangelical about foraging right, he believes in the detail: wicker baskets that allow spores and seeds to escape and colonise new territory, sharp knives and good harvesting technique, and always, always taking only what you need.
Porcini, cep or penny bun, however you choose to know them, the members of the Boletus genus are a delicious prize. Open oak woodland with the right balance of dappled shade is porcini territory. Eveleigh points out small, unobtrusive white mushrooms known as millers, a sure sign we’re in the right area. Moments later, he’s bent double, flicking leaves aside to reveal a small but perfectly formed cep camouflaged in the leaf litter. With a careful twist of the stem, the fungus is free of the soil. Using the edge of the blade to shave off the sheath, Eveleigh reveals that these tell-tale piles of shavings are the cheat’s way of identifying a promising patch for porcini.
It’s easy to get into the spirit of it, and once your eye adjusts fungi appear everywhere. Eveleigh’s endless patience with, “What’s this? Is it edible?” makes him the ideal teacher. He’s quick to share his knowledge of habitats, but cautions against overconfidence. “It’s too easy to make a mistake as edible species have poisonous lookalikes. Death is always fatal.”
In a damper corner of the forest dominated by birch we found arcs of pied de mouton, the hedgehog fungus (Hydnum repandum), spreading out in long lines of irregular buff-white droplets as if they’d been left by a careless painter. Easily identified by the dense rows of little spines underneath the cap, hedgehog fungi are collected by slicing the stem with a sharp knife before placing them carefully in a clean basket. Then, mingling among a thicket of hedgehogs, we find our first chanterelles, shades of deep amber and egg yolk with distinctive forked gills or ridges on their undersides. It’s easy to see how you could get carried away and pick more than would be respon-sible, so before long we’re heading back to The Pig, adding some gorgeous yellow crab-apples to our haul along the way.
After a morning spent foraging with Eveleigh you come away with your senses so attuned to the environment around you it’s as if the volume has been turned up. As we enjoy the fruits of our haul in the style he recommends – fried in garlic and served on toasted bread baked in The Pig‘s kitchens – a sense of completion and satisfaction settles like a blanket over the day. The restaurant menu will be richer, more complex and have an integrity gleaned from our labours: guests will enjoy fresh food that has travelled less than a mile from wood to plate. The magic springs from the commitment to the endeavour espoused by everyone from Eveleigh and Golding to the chefs who smoke their own meats, the kitchen gardeners and Elton and the team whose vision has been realised as The Pig.
I had enough confidence to strike out on my own a few weeks later, finding hedgehogs in a characteristic bit of New Forest woodland, a single penny bun and plenty of fungi I didn’t recognise and left alone. While I won’t be relying on foraged food to fill my fridge, it has expanded my horizons. I can’t keep the speculative gleam from my eye when I pass an abandoned Bramley apple tree laden with fruit, and I’m already anticipating a spring of nettle soups and wild garlic pesto.
If you want to experience that smug feeling that comes from getting something for nothing, courses are sprouting from seashore and hedgerow with the rapidity of nettles colonising disturbed land. Pick a course offering information most applicable to you. The vagaries of local microclimate and geology mean foods that are plentiful in one region will be rare and therefore unharvestable in others.
Perhaps it’s an escape you seek, a glimpse of a way of life at one with nature or a taste of self- sufficiency and the freshest of foods served in the casual elegance of The Pig’s conservatory. This restaurant with rooms and the vision of hospitality it espouses, along with the consummate foraging skills of Garry Eveleigh, make it a seductive and generous host. Visit once and you’ll be back again to sample the New Forest menu in all its seasonal glory.
For information about excursions with the forager, visit The Pig.
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