What’s the best thing to take with you on a rural food-gathering trip? Well, obviously, it’s an award-winning chef keen to return to nature, and preferably one in possession of a little bit of wilderness to return to.
Fortunately, such a man exists and, counter-intuitively, can be found in central London. He’s Adam Byatt, Essex-born chef proprietor of much-lauded Trinity on Clapham Common, Bistro Union and, latterly, Upstairs at Trinity.
Byatt began his career at Claridge’s, aged 16, moved to The Square and then launched Thyme in 2001, a restaurant on an unremarkable stretch of road in Clapham that became an avant-garde showcase for the kind of innovative, seasonal British food with which London is now thoroughly familiar. Byatt moved Thyme to the Hospital Club in Covent Garden before returning to his grittier Clapham roots with Trinity.
His is the now-almost-old-fashioned, essentially urban, British story of a chef who rises not via television’s MasterChef or The Great British Bake-Off, but through an apprenticeship in top restaurant kitchens, and then carries on to launch his own groundbreaking restaurant in the metropolis.
On the face of it, he is the last person you would expect to find hanging out in a wood in Sussex. But to Byatt, Sussex is his second home. He spent all his childhood summer holidays here, camping and running wild in the 220 acres at Ashburnham Place, near Battle. He now helps run its cafe and kitchen garden, which supplies much of Trinity’s fresh produce – having in exchange free run of the estate.
There has been a house at Ashburnham since the 12th century, but the current building, designed by Stephen Wright in 1757, was bombed in the war and rebuilt in 1959. Although some of the old outbuildings remain, including an orangery, old Ashburnham church and the spectacular seven-acre, 14ft-high walled kitchen garden, Ashburnham is now owned by a trust and operates as a conference and Christian prayer centre.
It’s no longer a beautiful building – but it is in a glorious setting, looking over parkland designed by Capability Brown, including one of his first essays in neo-Palladian bridge over lake by cedar tree – a combination that can be found in many subsequent Brown designs. Beyond the immediate parkland lie acres of fields and woodland – and this is where Byatt roamed as a child, and where he has returned today, with his son Jack, aged 12, who has inherited his father’s love of the outdoors, to do a bit of foraging for lunch.
Astonishingly for such a venture in the UK, we have hit on early summer’s hottest weekend – skies are blue, birds sing and geese usher quartets of fluffy goslings down to the lake to swim. Other, solid, lakes of bluebells, can be glimpsed through the trees, and the shrieks of children engaged in some complicated game of tag pierce the air.
It is an idyllic day for poking about in the undergrowth looking for morels, wild garlic and youthful nettles, and – were it not for the hordes of children at large – taking a potshot at a rabbit or two.
Luckily, Byatt has thought ahead on that issue and has been out earlier with his gun. And Jack, proving how useful it is to have a captive child on these occasions, now lugs a dead pigeon and a rabbit in his rucksack. In fact, Byatt is really more of a hunter-gatherer than a forager.
He says, 'The word foraging terrifies me. I like being out in the wild collecting food with a gun, fishing rod or knife. Everything I collect, I collect in abundance. I don’t want to spend three hours gathering 200g of weeds. I’m not into that. Some people are. It’s become very fashionable.’
Wild garlic is OK, though, and we pause for a while on the banks of the river that courses through the park and gather up handfuls of the cool green leaves and starry white flowers, releasing the pungent scent of garlic to drift upwards in the heat. 'Go for the smaller leaves,’ Byatt says, 'and the flowers too. In June you’d be searching for herbs, probably, but the autumn is the best time for foraging for mushrooms.’
Further on we pass a patch of alexanders ('like celery’) and a scattering of horseradish with its green and peppery new leaf. What’s his advice on eating wild food? 'Know what you’re doing,’ he says. 'Many mushrooms look like their poisonous cousins, or vice versa.’
In the distance, Jack, whose rucksack now exudes a charming waft of warming garlic, yells that he’s spotted a snake. We watch as a grass snake zigzags crazily across the path and disappears into the bushes.
Byatt and his family spend a few days every year camping with friends in Sussex. They cook a whole lamb on a spit and the children learn how to skin rabbits, pluck pigeons and search for mushrooms. 'Outdoorsy food has always been part of our life,’ says Byatt. 'Last year Jack and I tried camping out here at Ashburnham for two days with nothing apart from a tin of baked beans. We found mushrooms, caught eels, built a den and lived in the woods. It was cool.’ Together, they are working on a project called Cook & Son, sharing their outdoor adventures in a series of short videos.
Adam Byatt in hunter-gatherer mode
What does Jack like most about foraging? 'I like eating things I’ve picked,’ he says. 'I like finding mushrooms.’ How does he know if they’re OK to eat? 'If I don’t recognise it, I don’t pick it,’ he says. 'And don’t eat anything red. That’s the important thing.’
On a bank sloping down to the lake, where an old wooden jetty sags slantwise into the water, we find a fallen log on which to unload the gathered swag. Byatt whips out a gas camping stove, a couple of cast-iron saucepans, a clutch of goose eggs and several small bottles containing olive oil, mustard and mayonnaise plundered earlier from the Trinity kitchen. This is why a chef comes in handy on this kind of expedition.
Before one has even had the chance to ask, 'Can I help?’, Byatt has produced a couple of skinned rabbit fillets, handed the pigeon over to Jack to pluck, beaten the eggs and chopped up the wild garlic with a pocket knife. Soon a delectable smell of frying meat and garlic drifts into the air. 'I’m starving,’ says Jack. 'Can we eat now, Dad?’
We can, as it happens. On a single-ring camping stove, Byatt has conjured up slices of fried pigeon breast, a wild garlic and goose-egg omelette, golden yellow and oozing on to the plate, and rabbit wraps with mustard mayonnaise – all of which you’d be pleased to find in a restaurant. 'There’s nothing cheffy here,’ Byatt says modestly. 'It’s all meant for children. Very straightforward. A cast-iron pan makes all the difference, though it’s a pain to carry around.’
By now Jack has eaten a whole omelette, two pigeon legs and a rabbit wrap, and is searching around for pudding. We repair to the Orangery cafe, which does a nice line in large pieces of cake baked locally, taking a detour en route through the kitchen garden and the old greenhouses, which probably once housed Ashburnham grapes and exotic things such as Victorian pineapples, but are now the site on which Byatt plans to build another restaurant.
He hopes it will be self-sufficient, using food grown in the kitchen garden, and should be a romantic addition to his existing portfolio. 'That’s the dream, at any rate,’ Byatt says. 'To come here, find a house nearby and start a restaurant in the country. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in London.’