New restaurant The Foragers Retreat brings wild food and personalised menus to Suffolk
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
Forager and chef Carl Shillingford has just opened the cafe, restaurant and workshop space with wife Beth.
A walk in the woods isn't just an opportunity for a head-clearing stroll for Carl Shillingford.
Where the rest of us experience the musky, primal scent of damp earth under our boots, appreciate the birds in the trees, the tangle of weeds and dainty wildflowers clawing out from the blanket of undergrowth, searching for sunlight, Carl sees an edible larder.
The serrated diamond-shaped leaves of fat hen. Carpets of spring's heady white garlic burrowed into boggy crags, flourished with snow-white petals. Little 'ears' of chickweed. Thickets of nettle bursting with vitamins. And sugary plumes of fluffy meadowsweet - which can flavour the most delicate of wobbly cream desserts.
Carl (an alumni of the Roux brothers' kitchens having headed up the White Hart in Nayland) is most at home foraging in Suffolk's wilderness, or stoveside, and has just opened a brand new wild restaurant and café with wife Beth in the village of Pebmarsh, near Bures and Sudbury - The Foragers Retreat.
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The couple previously had Shillingford's at the Quay in Sudbury, which proved very popular indeed, but, says Beth, it was time to evolve. "We couldn't move the business forward there (the Quay) and we didn't want it to be stagnant. It was a time to continue growing and there were lots of things starting to position themselves in ways that started to make sense."
Carl and Beth looked at several properties, and found what they thought was their dream location, only for the plans to fall through at the final hour. But fate (and a local man - who doesn't wish to be named) stepped in to save the day, Beth reveals. "We put out a lot of social media around Christmas and were contacted by this amazing guy who already had a vision of converting a stable into a restaurant or café. It had access to a farm and woodlands and he said 'look, we have all this available already, come and take a look'. They were just incredible people."
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They were bowled over, springing into action to secure the site for The Foragers Retreat - a place where food, nature and community can come together in harmony. "When we first went in," Beth laughs, "it was literally a stable. They were sweeping out the straw! But the man who owns it is an engineer and very much could see the building beyond what was already there. We wanted an upstairs space for a restaurant and they went away then came back and built a staircase and first floor for us."
The business, which opened at the weekend, combines a daytime café (closed Tuesdays) with an evening restaurant (Thursday to Saturday evenings by booking only) and a studio. Of course, Carl will be out running foraging sessions too, with plans to plant additional wild ingredients in the woods on site, keeping food miles to an absolute minimum.
Breakfast in the café, which has a bohemian, upcycled, relaxed aura, has a familiar feel. There's warm pastries, organic porridge with organic yoghurt and seasonal fruits, eggs benedict, royale and Florentine served on Carl's homemade English muffins, and sausage sandwiches using what Beth calls "the best" bangers from Kerridge's butchers in Nayland - a business Carl's had a relationship with for a long time.
Homemade cakes and scones are always available alongside tea and coffee for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon treat.
And lunchtimes, says Beth, have an Ottolenghi-style vibe. "People eat with their eyes, and sometimes you read everything on the menu and it's a bit dull, but if you look at it laid out you might say 'I want some of that'. We have bowls of vegetable-based dishes on the counter so customers can choose two or three of those and add a homemade tartlet or quiche of the day." Flavours, she says, could range from a classic quiche Lorraine, to wild mushroom and wild herbs quiche, or wild herb falafel tartlet.
Upstairs, and at weekends the ethos of the original Shillingford's at the Quay has very much been retained. Due to popularity, guests wanting Friday and Saturday night slots need to book around a month in advance, with a bit more flexibility around Thursdays. Rather marvellously, every single customer is treated to their own specialised, personalised menu - not something you'd expect at a rural restaurant on the Suffolk/north Essex border. Beth explains: "We email the menu out to diners 10 days ahead and they let us know what they fancy! We then go and forage and source all the ingredients to create the menu for them. There's an individual menu for each person. That means we don't have waste because we're not picking or buying more than we need. Customers have responded well to it and in general people are against unnecessary food waste. It's a great system. When people come in we know them by name - they're not just 'table number four'."
All dishes on the monthly changing menu are a generous starter size with around three plates plus a pudding usually being enough to sate the average customer. There are three vegetable, three meat and two fish options, plus the 'dessert of the night', homemade sorbet and ice cream and "Carl's incredible cheeseboard".
At the moment there's satay chicken of the woods - not chicken at all, but a cheery tequila sunrise coloured mushroom which has a meaty texture and flavour not dissimilar to lemon chicken! Or try wild watercress soup, crayfish gnocchi, rabbit and bacon tortellini, or haunch of wild boar with gratin, asparagus, fat hen (a wild green) and damson jus.
Pudding promises sunshine flavours (whatever the current weather may look like), from an elderflower perfumed ice cream to a trio of strawberries - tartlet, mousse and wild strawberry ice cream.
The Foragers Retreat is licenced, serving wine, beer and even wild cocktails, to compliment your culinary journey.
And spiritual nourishment is covered too in the studio room. "We're running courses, classes and workshops there," says Beth. "Julie, who works with us, has been a fundamental driving force for that, collaborating with different artists and groups. We've already started having Pilates up there, and gong therapy. That's incredible. The lady who does it is almost a musician with all these different gongs and instruments she uses. You close your eyes and snuggle up with a blanket and she can take you on a journey. One minute it sounds like you're in the waves, then the mountains. It's glorious. Afterwards I had the best night's sleep in a long time."