Historic Sussex Hotels chef Martin Hadden connects guests to food and nature for an experience they'll never forget
In West Sussex’s rustic surroundings — from the western Weald to the South Downs — soil might express such thoughts by manifesting typically British crops of runner beans or broad beans. And a chef who speaks nature’s language might continue the proverbial conversation by translating such ingredients into a lovely tomato and three bean soup with cream swirls.
Such is Martin Hadden’s domain, as group executive chef of Historic Sussex Hotels. He reportedly technically oversees the cuisine at all three properties: the Bailiffscourt in Climping, The Spread Eagle in Midhurst and Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield. He however leaves the quotidian concerns of the latter to its celebrated head chef Stephen Crane.
Hadden appears to have spent much of his youth essentially living off the land. “In the ‘70s, we moved as a family from London to rural North Devon, bought a small farm and were self-sufficient for five years,” says the Michelin-starred chef.
There, he seemed to develop an unusually close (by modern urban standards) relationship to food. He and his family reared pigs and cattle and milked cows. “We spent all our time outside in the fields, in the woods, by the river. Our nearest neighbours were two miles away,” Hadden says, adding that this may have subconsciously led him to his present career. “It’s been a culinary quest of mine to find comparable produce now as a cook.”
With raw, natural pockets of West Sussex as his ‘larder,’ he aims to be in the right place to fulfil his mission. He aims to source seafood from locals Keith Birkett and Selsey Shellfish Direct, and has been known to take a rather hands-on and experiential approach to this, having gone out on their fishing boat around Selsey Bill (a headland into the Channel about ten miles from the Bailiffscourt) to pot crabs and lobsters.
The experience was equal parts culinary foray, seaside adventure and history lesson. “The fishermen off the South Coast still use navigation on the sea bed put down in the Second World War to guide the bombers back into England across the Channel,” he enthuses.
One of Hadden’s South Coast forays found him, to his amazement, fishing in just eight feet of water on a sand bar. Such engagement with land and nature is apparently an essential step in his culinary creative process, as it has enhanced his gratitude for the ingredients, he says. “You see the passion and trouble the likes of Keith and other farmers go through. As a cook, you have to understand and appreciate that.”
The resulting take of such local fishing expeditions is transformed and expressed in dishes like South Coast monkfish with Bayonne ham, coco beans and etuvée of vegetables; and whole grilled South Coast Plaice with caper butter and triple cooked chips.
It’s far from enough that the food at the Historic Sussex Hotels restaurants may be imbued with Hadden’s love and understanding of the natural world from which it came. Visitors to the properties are also encouraged to create their own explorative connections to the surrounding landscape.
The Bailiffscourt is embraced by peripheries of mesmerising, craggy seafront blanketed with edibles like seaweed, and paths lined with elderberries, mushrooms and marsh samphire. Local forager Debra Wood provides Hadden and his gastronomic team with baskets full of her finds, which are ultimately laced into beautiful dishes.
Guests are able to wander around the property and discover their own natural treats (however they are encouraged to do so with the help of a proper foraging guidebook). The hotel has also hosted foraging dinners that include dishes like gorgeously green-hued nettle soup, venison Wellington with roasted crab apples and elderberry and port sauce, and foraged mushrooms on toasted brioche with wood sorrel and crème fraiche.
The Spread Eagle, similarly offers sporadic themed meals, such as game dinners that include, as Hadden puts it, “all things game, furred and feathered” like honey roast pheasant breast with confit, pheasant leg gallette, crispy potato, butternut squash purée, Brussel sprouts and sesame seeds. At a past event, game supplier Jack Smallman of nearby South Downs Venison and Game was on-hand to school diners on the history and attraction of the so-called ‘shooting fraternity.’
Hadden has also been known to step out of his beloved kitchen to share his zest for the origins of foods, as well as vintages. “The hotels are a bit like food and wine clubs,” he says, recalling how he took one group of guests to nearby Ridgeview, a local vineyard known for its sparkling wines. “I cooked a few bits and bobs for them, they had a tour and wine tasting, and we had a very jolly afternoon,” he recalls.
The chef, clearly jolly, when it comes to leaving the kitchen to connect with raw ingredients, however adopts a more serious stance when it comes to the contemporary trend of celebrity chefs’ exodus from the kitchen and into the limelight.
“Personally, my choice, is [far from] to do too much of that [instead] to concentrate on cooking,” he says, adding, “When [guests] are paying lots of money, the least the chef could do is be there.”
So, other than when Hadden is engrossed in cooking he might be found somewhere in the South Downs beaming over the discovery of a cluster of Pied de Mouton mushrooms or reverently picking grapes at harvest time. This seems to be all part of his “daily work” to quote fellow naturalist Thoreau — communing with and reinterpreting the terms of nature.
Hadden concludes: “To be the best all around cook you can be, you need to have a very rounded knowledge of the ingredients you’re using.” The soil wholeheartedly agrees.
The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa
Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9NH
Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa
Climping, West Sussex BN17 53W
Ockenden Manor Hotel & Spa
Cuckfield, West Sussex, RH17 5LD