The Magic of Mushrooms: Foraging and Forest Feasting in Sussex

The Magic of Mushrooms: Foraging and Forest Feasting in Sussex

To many in the UK, fungi are the stuff of fairy tale, associated with witchcraft or psychedelics. Embarking on a mushroom-foraging expedition and tucking into a wild forest feast in rural Sussex, we get a taste of Britain’s untapped culinary landscape.

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 UK is typically viewed as a mushroom-fearing
nation; fungi are the stuff of fairy tale, associated with witchcraft
or psychedelics. However, mushrooms are magical for a multitude of

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Lowdown

Fire & Wild offers a range of outdoor dining experiences,
including foraging and cooking with fire.

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