Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Travel | A foraging adventure with the Tudor Farmhouse


Confession time: I don't really like mushrooms. So you'd think an afternoon of foraging in October would probably not be my bag. Well, you'd be wrong. Here's why...

Earlier this month, I accepted an invitation to head over to the Forest of Dean for an afternoon of foraging organised by gorgeous hotel, the Tudor Farmhouse. You may remember my post on autumn exposure therapy, in which I'm actively doing autumnal things to make the transition from summer less painful. What could be more autumnal than a root about in the forest with a wise septuagenarian named Raoul?

Nothing, that's what. So I accepted. Heading over the River Severn with Abi from These Four Walls, the sun shone bright across the water and we turned off down twisty-turny lanes until we reached Clearwell. Here, instructions were to turn right at the cross in the centre of the village (give me proper directions over satnav any day) and to the left was the hotel. Its name turns out to be only half of the story - yes, the Tudor Farmhouse is a beautiful old collection of buildings in the countryside, But they house the most luxurious hotel guaranteeing a supremely comfortable night's stay plus fine dining to delight even the most cosmopolitan of foodies.

My room - The Nest - was in on the first floor of a barn across the pebble driveway from the main buildings. The door of this suite opens onto the bedroom, with its ceiling extended high into the eaves, sunshine pouring in through the skylight. Past the comfortable double and through a doorway leads you to the separate sitting area with panoramic view across the hotel gardens and out to the countryside beyond. Through here is the huge bathroom with monsoon shower and roll-top bath, complete with my very favourite products by Bramley. The bathroom's underfloor heating was a particular bonus.



But no time for baths just yet... We gathered outside to meet our foraging guide, Raoul van Den Broucke, who has supplied the hotel with local produce for many years before turning tour guide. Definitely a safe pair of hands. Before even leaving the car park, Raoul alerted us to the tall fennel stems growing out from the walls that had turned silvery white - perfect, he said, to keep for summer and use as sweetly scented barbecue firelighters.










A short drive later and we were striding across huge fields on the hunt for puffball mushrooms. We got lucky, coming across a huge patch which Raoul eagerly plucked from the ground and added to the basket. (Lovely detail - his special foraging knife is from Italy, its bright red handle showing the minimum size of porcini mushroom it's legal to pick. Also, I have more photographs of this wonderful man than there's room for here so I'd encourage you to go over and flick through the rest on my Flickr account, here.)




We then moved into the forest, following a long path between giant pine trees and under huge blue skies. If, like me, you've seen a horror film called The Witch then you *might* end up feeling a wee bit spooked at this point! Passing large grasses on the verge, Raoul pulled seedheads apart to reveal sedge (used as an ingredient in energy bars). Looking up, we spotted sloes and bilberries, looking down we found the supposedly aphrodisiac stinkhorn mushroom and the surprisingly delicious honey fungus. Raoul shared more of his hard-won knowledge - did you know you can make a tea from the needles of Christmas pines? Or that the clover-like plant covering a tree stump were actually lemony wood sorrel or oxalis, tiny green leaves selling to London restaurants for over £100 per kilogram?






Straying off the path, we walked over mossy carpets which made for an eerie quiet, almost like snowfall. I thought about childhood fairy tales (Into the Forest and the Moomin books being two of my favourite examples), so often set in forests, where protagonists used the cushioned mossy ground as makeshift beds. The forest can so easily tip from beauty into darkness, the solid familiarity of nature turning sinister as the light goes. Luckily, we made it out before nightfall.



Our final forage took place near the river at Newland. Raoul dared us to try what he described as 'an electric plant', which turned out to be a Himalayan balsam, its electric qualities being the way it drops seeds when brushed past. It's a huge horticultural headache, springing up all over the place, but the seeds were quite delicious. Our adventure ended in the churchyard at Newland where we tried yewberries. These bright, waxy berries hang from the branches of a needled pine, similar to a Christmas tree. The majority of the tree is poisonous but the berries? Sweet and sticky, with a gummy pit inside that Raoul taught us to spit out to keep our fingers clean. And then it was back to the Tudor Farmhouse for a relaxing soak in the tub before dinner.


The five-course tasting menu with accompanying wine flight is the highlight of the hotel restaurant. Head chef Rob Cox delights in cooking with the treasures found on Raoul's foraging expeditions so we sampled the mushrooms found earlier in the day in the hotel bar. For someone who doesn't enjoy the texture of mushrooms in particular, I was pleasantly surprised at how varied the selection tasted. My favourites were the smaller ones, the honey fungus coming out top of my tasting list. And then it was through to the restaurant for dinner where we were joined by owner, Colin Fell, whose vision to turn a former working farm into this rural retreat began in 2003. It was fascinating to hear stories of the hotel's development and more fascinating tales from Raoul's life in Belgium, Portugal and Italy.

The food itself was a delicious combination of seasonal treats and Michelin standard cooking (no pics because it's just not worth trying to photograph food in low light). I was so impressed by the effort that the kitchen put into my vegan options, which were similar in style to the standard menu but a world away from the usual. Here's what I ate:

White onion soup, oats, smoked prunes

Roasted carrot, raisin, lime, nasturtium

Truffled celeriac, hazelnut and truffle pesto, hispi cabbage

Roasted butternut squash, Roscoff onions, oyster mushroom, hazelnut oil

Coconut Pannacotta, raspberry, lychee 

Sounds pretty good, huh? Although I can't say I like it when restaurants write their menus that way - too abstract for me!





Alas, I didn't go on the wine flight as I'm doing Sober October (I know, I sound so dull but it's for charity - please sponsor me) but the food was incredibly delicious and the company very fun. I slept well that night, somehow making room for breakfast the next day where vegan options again were varied and delicious.

Driving the 45 minutes or so back to Bristol was a bit of a reality check after such an idyllic break. Frankly, I'd have much preferred to stay in the glamorous surroundings of the Tudor Farmhouse in its beautiful countryside setting. Even with mushrooms on the menu.

Disclosure:
I was a guest of the Tudor Farmhouse, receiving accommodation, food and the foraging afternoon for the purposes of this review. 
All opinions are my own, however, and a true reflection of my experience. 
For more on how I work with brands, head to my Work with me page.


Want to go foraging in the Forest of Dean?


Tudor Farmhouse (tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk; 01594 833046) offers group and private foraging courses throughout Autumn. Private courses cost £125 (for 4) including ‘foraged’ lunch.
Add 1x nights’ accommodation and dinner from £365 per couple (based on two sharing).
Group courses cost just £50 per person with lunch.
Add 1x nights’ accommodation and dinner from £150 per person.
Group courses run on 28 October and 4, 11 & 19 November 2017.
Book for 2018: 7, 14, 21, 28 April, 5 May 2018
Costs: £50 with lunch. Also available as a gift voucher
Courses start at 9.30am, guests should arrive at 9am. Lunch is at 1pm
Individual Foraging: 
Can be booked subject to availability with Raoul. 
£125 for up to 4 people (i.e. one person is still £125), £25 for each additional person
Overnight Packages:
Group Foraging, lunch, dinner and best available room: £300 per couple
Private Foraging: 
Based on two sharing including lunch, dinner and best available room: £365 per couple





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