'Viking Beserkers ate them before raping and pillaging because one bite sent them 900 miles into the air before inducing a coma-like sleep'
Foraging for food is not your typical HNW hobby. But when you're in the New Forest, staying at the Lime Wood Hotel, and having your discoveries cooked by future-Michelin-star chef Luke Holder then it all makes sense.
Over the opening days of summer, I was lucky enough to pick the first Oyster mushrooms of the season. That's special. Not only are they two months late this year, but alongside Porcinis they are the tastiest of the UK's 3000 varieties.
Indeed, Garry Eveleigh, Lime Wood's master forager, informed me that picking the wrong type would’ve had disastrous effects. ‘There are some real zingers,’ he said. ‘Take the fly agaric: the Viking Beserkers ate them before raping and pillaging because one bite sent them 900 miles into the air before inducing a coma-like sleep.'
Happily, my mushroom ravioli had no such effect. Served in the scullery of the sixteen-room Regency retreat, it was a bonne bouche and refreshingly reflective of the hotel's themes of nature and nourishment.
It all starts with the approach. Whizzing 90 minutes from London, you weave through the New Forest's heath marshes and tree tunnels before hitting Beaulieu where you're forced to slow down to swerve the wild ponies that run free on the road. Once navigated, you turn into the Lime Wood’s discreet drive marked by a green sign (an intriguing choice in a 220 square mile forest) and up a road lined with pink and purple English orchids.
For me, holidays are best when you relax from the start, so when the Lime Wood laid on a facial for my guest as I checked in – described later simply by the word, 'Wow' – it all boded well.
What’s most relaxing about 24 hours there is, however, not the many pools and massage rooms of the Herb House Spa – enjoyable though they are – but the suites. Designed by David Collins, half are in the main house, half in the outbuildings; and while that choice would normally make itself, I controversially recommend the latter.
Called the Crescent, these duplex suites feel more like New England houses than rooms, and are so cleverly arranged in an arc by Charles Morris, one of Highgrove’s architects, that you are never overlooked. The feat is all the more impressive given the panoramic windows looking out into the forest – a mere twenty feet away – with its dense undergrowth of oaks, ashes and beeches, achieved by fencing the deer out. On the whole, it feels like staying in an opulent tree house.
The experience is well suited to urbanites. It’s not just the way that the hotel redefines creature comforts, it’s also the way that the staff treat you. Take the city slicker who, looking puzzled in the forest, asked Garry the mushroom man, ‘Who cuts the grass?’ Even that wasn’t dismissed; rather it got a gentle chuckle and the reply, ‘An old boy with a flymo.’
If necessary, such characters can satiate their thirsty minds with a five-mile-walk to Lime Wood’s sister hotel, the Pig. A restaurant with rooms, it is less formal than the Lime Wood, yet has the same style, exemplified by dishes from pigs’ ears to pork pies. Different but complementary you might say.
So with all this, it’s of little surprise that William the Conqueror made the New Forest his hunting ground. What a relief though that since his riding accident in 1087, which led to six months of herbs being stuffed in unseasonal places, the local spa treatments have modernised over a millennium.
My advice is act fast. Take the mushroom foraging: the Forestry Commission is clearing the New Forest of pine trees, with the result that swathes of winter chanterelles, the fifth tastiest mushroom in the UK according to Garry, will soon disappear.
A walk around the woods currently will show you the magic of mushrooms. I felt refreshed venturing over fallen beeches and under mighty conifers; through patches of light and shade, rain and sun, all the time glimpsing darting deer and the odd cyclist.
While at first you’ll find it hard to spot the forest’s fruits, it gets easier in time. Sure, some’ll question why you’d even want to pick mushrooms in the first place, with ghastly stories abating such as Nicholas Evans, the author of The Horse Whisperer, who nearly killed his wife while on holiday in the Scottish Highlands by cooking a butter-and-parsley dish of deadly webcaps.
But that’s just the fun. When your produce is fresher than fresh – an ironic concept in the fungi family – the idea of buying an M&S salad will be utterly perverse ever thereafter. And that’s just the way God intended it…