Tis the season to be out foraging – blackberries, apples, mushrooms, nuts – they’re all out there for the taking. Last weekend, on a sunny autumnal day, I joined a group from the Hotel du Vin in Poole on a fungi foraging foray in the New Forest – the first of what the hotel hopes to be an annual event.
After a morning’s seminar at Gorse Meadow – B&B and HQ of Mrs Brigitte Tee – formidable fungi supplier to the stars, and onetime wife of Jimi Hendrix’s manager (she wears the T-shirt to prove it) – we set off into the woods, led by Jackie, Mrs Tee’s assistant (Mrs Tee stayed behind to cook lunch). Jackie has been gathering wild mushrooms all her life, so what she doesn’t know about fungi ain’t worth knowing.
Throughout the day we spy all manner of otherworldly specimens – bay and birch boletes, oysters, ceps, pied de mouton (or hedgehogs – so called because of the tiny white spines beneath the cap). We also encounter some of the poisonous varieties that thrive on our shores. Most edible mushrooms have a toxic counterpart (just to fox you), so it’s vital to be careful when out picking. Rule of thumb is to leave alone anything that’s white, and if in doubt, don’t even touch it. These things can have you on dialysis faster than you can say make mine a stroganoff.
Our highly informative and fruitful day ended back at the hotel with a champagne reception and mushroom hors-d’oeuvres (starring an incredible truffle mayonnaise) in the hotel’s Snug room. This was followed by a four-course mushroom feast – cep soufflé and red onion compote, roast fillet of salmon with creme du mousseron, partridge and wild mushroom jus, and iced peach parfait with mushroom-shaped meringues – all served with matching wines chosen by Chad, our South African sommelier.
As you’d expect, the hotel has a wine list that could sink a small ship, and serves killer cocktails in plush surrounds. The hotel recently launched a “Homegrown and Local” initiative, and Poole’s head chef Darren Rockett sources many of his ingredients from the area – Spring Fields pork, Dorset Escargot, and market fruit and veg from Sopley Farm. Everything we ordered in the Bistro was sublime, from the pan-fried red mullet and oyster fritters on our first night to the creamy scrambled eggs with smoked salmon the morning we left. Even the cheese board was exceptional.
The hotel has 38 rooms, all named after wineries. Mine had a deliciously squishy bed with Egyptian linens, and I loved the rain shower and large balcony on which I could take my breakfast, even in November. As befits the Hotel du Vin brand, the property had a life before hostelry (in this case as a vine-clad Georgian mansion), so the place is full of period features – stone staircases, original fireplaces, high ceilings. Poole also has huge murals in the reception, a wine-glass chandelier in the hall and a cozy seafaring-meets-tartan decor.
The hotel is within spitting distance of the quay (the second largest natural harbour in the world – Sydney being the first), so on our final morning we took a stroll along the water’s edge, admiring the super yachts in the bay. As we walked, a fisherman puttered up to the harbour and began selling his catch from the boat – four plaice for three quid – and people immediately trotted over in T-shirts and late-autumn tans to do business. It was the perfect coastal scene, made even better with a bag full of mushrooms in my pocket to take home.
Details: Hotel du Vin has rooms from £130, including breakfast. Prices quoted are from Booking.com. To book directly with the hotel, please use the link below.
The course: The mushroom-foraging course costs from £299 per person, including two nights’ accommodation (with breakfast), a day’s foraging, lunch and mushroom dinner, plus relaxed bistro supper on the first night. To book, call Hotel du Vin Poole on 01202 785570 and quote ‘Mushroom Foraging Package’ or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The hotel runs regular wine courses, too.
Foodie diversion: Seafoodies should make the pilgrimage to Crab House Café in Wyke Regis (01305 788867; crabhousecafe.co.uk).
Come here for: Boat trips out to Blytonesque Brownsea Island, walks in the New Forest, fossil-spotting on the Jurassic Coast, first-class fare, and, of course, the wine.
(Photos courtesy of Hotel du Vin, Katie Monk and Aven Dawson)