I can see a splash of purple poking out from between the bracken's finger-like leaves. I reach down and pluck a mushroom from the soil. It rolls into my hand like a jewel. "That's an amethyst deceiver," comments Jesper Lauder. "And it's edible." I look down at my find in wonder. What appears to be thin hair coats its stem and its gills are a bright, otherworldly violet. "I can't eat this, surely?"
There's a cry from the other side of the clearing as a man bounds towards Jesper with child-like excitement. "Look what I've found." Proudly clasped in his fist is a slightly slug-chewed porcini. Its bulbous stem and reddish cap match the finder's blush of exhilaration.
We're three hours into a mushroom forage and the Ashdown Forest has become our playground. Once you start looking for mushrooms, you see them everywhere. We fan out, scanning the floor, feet treading softly between open heathland and birch wood. The scent of autumn, of moisture and decaying leaves, hangs thick in the air and, at the foot of the trees, you can see blooms of yellow sulphur tuft rearing their many heads.
"The cellular makeup of mushrooms can create an immune-boosting response in many people," explains Jesper, who is a medical herbalist as well as a forager. He points out the birch polypore, which hangs from the tree's silvery bark. "This mushroom has wound-healing properties," he comments. "You can peel a bit off to make a plaster. The turkey tail, which mainly grows on dead wood, is widely used in the Far East to help maintain a functioning immune system."
Fungi exist in a separate kingdom to plants and animals, and today, I'm barely scraping the surface of its dominion. But still, the basket is filling up with different shades and shapes, and there are too many types to count. Jesper hands me one. It's fanned like a coral and an iron-ore-colour. "Watch this," he commands. He draws his nail across the amber flesh, and it begins to bleed droplets of orange liquid. "This is called a saffron milk cap, and it's delicious."
Of course, not every mushroom we find is edible. In fact, I discover that the ones you can eat often have poisonous look-a-likes. "You must be 100 per cent sure before eating a mushroom," Jesper warns. "Deepen your certainty and identify the species at least 10 times before putting it on your plate." We quickly learn the obvious ones to avoid, the umbrella-like death cap and destroying angel; but it's hard not to be charmed by the red and white spots of the fairy's favourite fly agaric. "This mushroom used to be dried and added to a saucer of milk to attract and kill flies during summertime when infestations happen," Jesper explains.
With our basket full, our stomachs empty and our brains trying to retain all we'd just learned, we leave the Ashdown Forest for a woodland just outside Lewes. Here a five-course feast is being prepared for us by Fire + Wild, and we have precious ingredients to deliver to the chef. An outdoor dining room has been set up around the warmth of a fire pit and beneath wavering branches of spruce. A canvas hangs beneath the towering trunks, draped elegantly above several wooden tables, protecting us from the occasional patter of rain.
Chef, hunter and forager Mark Andrews is cooking over amber flames. The pans are charcoal black and smoke billows into the crisp, autumn air. Dappled sunlight occasionally illuminates Mark's face beneath his tilted, wide-brimmed hat, and I see a look of earnest determination as he flips and stirs, creating our lunch. If you accidentally stumbled across this scene, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd been transported back to the Old West.
We wait in anticipation, mingling beneath the trees, the popping bubbles of a golden raspberry bellini wrapping me in a hazy warmth. Lunch is served. We scrape back our chairs, the legs brushing aside pine needles and pillow-soft moss as we sit. I devour, perhaps too quickly, venison salami with goats cheese and sourdough, the creamy flavour of the cheese balanced by sour pops of pickled bilberry and mushroom.
Bilberry is a blueberry-like fruit found growing in the UK's uplands; Mark foraged these during a visit to the Black Mountains in Wales. He's keen to emphasise how his meals are a collaboration between him and other creative British producers. The venison chorizo and bresaola were produced on the west coast of Scotland by Great Glen Charcuterie. "They make a range of 100 per cent-wild charcuterie the traditional way, free of farmed meat," he explains. "I was there a few weeks ago preparing deer with the co-founder."
The feast is focused around wild meat, an echoing of Mark's diet. "I struggle to accept the way most farmed animals are reared and killed for food," he explains. "I feel better knowing that the animals I eat live a free life and consume a natural diet, without any hormones and chemicals."
The second course is squirrel bitterballen, a take on the Dutch meat croquette. He shot these animals out of the trees surrounding the dining space, and I am unsure whether to be impressed or apprehensive, picturing the chase as they jumped from pine to spruce. But the grey squirrel is a non-native, invasive species wreaking havoc on our biodiversity by wiping out its red cousin and feeding on bird eggs. "It's important to educate people about the positive effects of hunting on our ecosystem and diets," Mark continues. "With no apex predators left in the UK, deer numbers would be out of control without regular culling and management."
Nevertheless, I'm nervous about the flavour of this rodent. I dip the ball into the hazelnut aioli and take a bite. The meat melts in my mouth, rich, tender and braised in wine, herbs and venison stock. It's delicious. Later, I find comfort in the warmth of our foraged-mushroom risotto.
The meal surprises me with flavours I've never experienced before. That's the wonder of wild foods, they are numerous and little used in everyday cooking. Take wood sorrel, used as part of the salsa verde on the grilled wood pigeon. It's astonishingly sharp, with sour citrus notes. Jesper runs into the forest, plucks a few more leaves and brings them back to the table. They're a vibrant green and look a lot like clover. "It tastes like lemon," I comment.
Foraged edibles, having not been modified by humans, are often higher in nutritional value. For dessert, we enjoy a sea-buckthorn curd served with chestnut crème, hogweed-and-hazelnut crumble and meringue. The curd is sunshine orange, a bit like a spilt egg yolk. Large clusters of this colourful berry can be found on thorn-covered trees close to the sea, and they're packed full of vitamins A, B and C. "It's thought our ancestors would have relied on it during the colder months as the fruit remains on the branch well into winter," Mark explains. Like so much of this meal, its taste is impossible to pinpoint, an interesting mix of sweet and citrus, similar to an orange or passion fruit.
Each course of this feast unfolded like a storybook - every ingredient with a history to tell about the landscape of British cuisine, and proof that there's always more to know about what's on your plate.
Fire & Wild offers a range of outdoor dining experiences, including foraging and cooking with fire.