Sunday, 20 November 2011

Foraging with Mark Hix

I’m in a tiny dolls house of a hotel with an ice pink façade, built on a slope by the roadside in Lyme Regis. Barely mid-afternoon, it’s already dark, and the wind is howling outside like an untamed beast, causing my window to crash against itself, as if out of sympathy for the giant waves in the distance, cascading up the harbour. Rain lashes relentlessly, the cool air from the drafty window filling my room with a ghostly chill. I feel like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, scared to open my wardrobe for fear of what I might find.

Earlier that day I’d braved the wind-swept beach in search of sea creatures to cook. A group of us had taken the train from London, leaving behind bright blue skies for a tempestuous Jurassic Coast, shrouded in gray. We’d descended upon the “Pearl of Dorset” to forage with Bridport-born celebrity chef Mark Hix, who splits his time between London and Lyme Regis, home to his Hix Oyster & Fish House. Stepping off the train into the rain, we dump our bags at the Mariners hotel, don Wellington boots, and weave our way down to the beach.

The unrelenting wind makes it impossible to get near the sea, which would have gobbled us up without spitting us out, so we have to make do with what’s growing between the pebbles, which includes sea spinach, sea kale, sea cabbage, sea purslane, and my favourite, the spicy, celery-like rock samphire. Shakespeare referred to the dangerous practice of collecting rock samphire from cliffs in King Lear: "Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!" Munching on a sprig, I begin my ascent to Hix’s hilltop restaurant, prodded up the hill in my soporific state by fellow hack Ben Norum’s umbrella.

Safely ensconced in Hix’s hideaway, we refuel on Talisker-laced hot toddies, dispensed into copper cups by master mixologist Nick Strangeway. Hix launches into a pep talk about the joys of foraging, handing round mushrooms he’d picked before the rain hit, including the ominously titled “Trumpets of Death”. We then dine like kings on deliciously fresh seafood platters dotted with lobsters, oysters, razor clams, muscles and jumbo prawns, followed by a meaty fillet of Torbay silver mullet accessorised with cockles in their shells and a forest of foraged seashore vegetables. Dessert reaches a decadent crescendo with a Talisker-drenched walnut tart with Dorset clotted cream, which matches wonderfully with accompanying drams of Talisker 10-year-old and 18-year-old. Glinting gold in their glasses, both have a powerful nose of peat-smoke, pepper, citrus and toffee, lifted by salty, sea air notes.

The next morning, the landscape had transformed. I awoke to the sound of birds chirping, and a view of a calm coastline welcoming the rising sun, piercing through the clouds. The sky was blue, the sea unmoving. It felt like a different place. I sat on the window ledge taking in its beauty for a minute or two, transfixed by the tranquility. How much my horizon had changed in a day. At breakfast, I learnt that Beatrix Potter had stayed in the hotel aged 17, during a visit that served as the inspiration for The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, which, though her last published book, was one of the first to have been written. Having never heard of the book, I chanced upon a copy at an antiques fair a week later. Dipping into it, the pages were interspersed with illustrations of the Lyme Regis coastline, bobbing with boats.

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