Pennywort and a pint of best, anyone? The Foragers pub serves the taste of the Sussex countryside on a plate
The Foragers, 3 Stirling Place, Hove, East Sussex, tel: 01273 733 134
Sunday 11 May 2008
Every keen eater has a working knowledge of Italian (carpaccio), French (cassoulet), Cantonese (har gau) and Vietnamese (pho). But with the rise – or should that be growth – of wild and foraged foods such as pennywort, chickweed, alexanders, lady's smock and sea buckthorn, there is a whole new language to learn: English.
After all, you don't want to be a ninny and ask in what woods one forages for "Lord of the Hundreds", as I did, only to be told it is a local cheese. (A hard East Sussex ewe's-milk cheese found only at dusk under broadleaf trees on south-facing slopes.)
Hove and Brighton locals have been getting quite fluent in forage-ese, since former Due South sous chef Bek Misich and ex-Groucho Club manager Paul Hutchison took over a sticky-carpeted local pub called The Stirling Arms and turned it into The Foragers.
The lovely thing about this place is that it hasn't been transformed into a paint-by-numbers gastropub. It's just a pub, a local boozer where groups gather to gossip on the outdoor tables, downing pints of Harveys Sussex Best Bitter, and oldies play cards in the cosy bar. There's a big beer garden, a DJ on weekends and a comedy night on Tuesdays, but Misich and Hutchison are hoping that it's the food that will draw the crowds.
As well as using a team of foragers who comb East Sussex in search of wild chervil, wood sorrel and radish leaves, Misich also sources local seafood, mushrooms and Sussex-reared beef. It's time and place that writes the menu here, from beetroot, spinach and roasted garlic risotto, to St George's and Judas Ear mushroom pudding with puy lentils, pennywort and bitter cress, and local line-caught halibut with kohlrabi, wild yarrow, watercress and pink fir potatoes.
Table-neighbours are girls in T-shirts that read "Love is the Thing", and boys with little dogs. One local observes "London is getting closer", but the £5.50 beetroot risotto, studded with diced beetroot and a fine dust of Lord of the Hundreds cheese, could easily go for twice that in the capital. It tastes more Sussex than Italian, which is what happens when you source locally. House-cured gravadlax (£6) is more delicate, served simply with caper berries, pickled samphire and hot toast that is, remarkably, hot. The gently cured salmon is lovely, all satin and natural oils.
It's relaxing to see a wine list where most of the action goes on below the £30 mark. A smoky, earthy 2005 Pikes Australian Sangiovese gives real value for its £23 price tag, and it's hard to think of a better match for the slow-braised rabbit (£12.95). This is a mountainous pile of meat draped over a heap of truffled mash (real mash, not creamy pomme purée) topped with a huge swatch of mossy, glossy, wilted wild garlic leaves and three-cornered garlic. It's like an Irish stew made with rabbit, full of fork-tender meat and likeable flavours. A dish of local mussels served in a light creamy broth (£8.50) is equally generous, but the spirity taste of the vermouth hasn't been sufficiently cooked out.
Only the puds are a bit cheffy, with a wedge of zesty, lemony, baked cheesecake (£4.95) coming with a splodge of cream, early berries and a shard of chocolate.
The Foragers seems to go out of its way not to lift expectations too high. It's probably wise. Napkins are paper, tables are bare, no bread is brought, wine isn't poured, and food presentation is generally plonk-it-on-a-plate. It's a pub, but it's a pub with the sort of fresh, generous, home-cooked food best described as tasty, made from intelligently sourced local produce, served by nice-as-pie staff, ending in a bill that slips easily under my self-imposed budget for the next three months of £80 for two. I'd always hoped the mantra "Think global, act local" could be achieved by going to the pub – and now it can.
SCORES 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK 10-11 NEEDS HELP 12 OK 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH 14 GOOD 15 VERY GOOD 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
The Foragers, 3 Stirling Place, Hove, East Sussex, tel: 01273 733 134 Lunch daily; dinner Mon-Sat. Around £70 for two, including wine and service
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