As the sun went down over the campsite on the South Downs in West Sussex, it was time to tuck into BBQ lamb breast, Merguez sausage, flatbread, red cabbage and feta cheese.
This was not the result of some seriously impressive family cooking over the firepit outside our tent, while the children foraged in the woods or joined in an impromptu game of football in the field, but a feasting table hosted by the campsite and – on this night – Daniel Britten our chef.
Welcome to Woodfire. It’s very much camping not glamping – be it in price, concept and attitude – but I challenge you to eat better at a campsite, or in a more convivial, natural environment with live fire food at its heart.
Woodfire, on the Westerlands Estate near Petworth, is the creation of wife and husband team Stella Gurney and Mark Griffiths – Griff to one and all.
How they got to be sitting in a field full of tents, people, dogs and laughter, BBQ food turning on fires at the camp kitchen, is a fascinating journey – one of hard work and enterprise, but a tale of turning childhood dreams into reality.
Gurney and Griffiths are ‘natural born campers’ who, in strict business terms, have now turned fully professional – Trojans with a Corinthian spirit.
As children, almost every holiday was a camping one. Griffiths, originally from Essex, might have started out in Norfolk’s Thetford Forest, with crisps the culinary highlight, while Gurney was heading out to campsites from her West Midlands home, but they were clearly soulmates long before they met – a marriage written under the stars.
“There were other attractions, but a shared love of camping clearly helped!” says Griffiths.
Gurney then talks of the ‘smoky, sweet langoustines’ Griffiths cooked for her early in their relationship over a charcoal grill on a French camping trip. His cooking skills clearly helped too.
“I have always been obsessed with BBQ. Stella is a great cook, but she is also brilliant at eating!”
Griffiths’ love of live fire food was further elevated by his time working in France, with village festivals near Perpignan on the Spanish border taking on Asterix banquet proportions.
Italy, with trips to Umbria and Tuscany, has also been a huge influence on the couple’s voyage to five eco-acres of England’s Weald.
Agriturismo is an Italian movement to stem the flight to the cities, investing in rural farms, with food and hospitality drawing in tourists to feed on local produce and embrace the wisdom and tradition of Nonna (Italian grandmother) cooking over fire.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be great to apply these elements and principles in England,” says Gurney.
By this time, Griffiths was successfully immersed in the burgeoning world of digital advertising and media, heading up the BBC’s e-commerce division. Food marketing was a constant, working with the likes of Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver.
“For me advertising, despite its rewards, was losing its magic, but not the food. At our house in London we would be smoking food – I bought a massive smoker for our small Brixton garden – and always looking to cook outside,” says Griffiths.
Meanwhile, Gurney was writing and editing children’s books and perhaps the Not-So-Silly Sausage was a subconscious nod to the future. Gurney recently co-authored Never Grow Up – a book ‘inspired by the mischief and magic of Roald Dahl’ and illustrated by Quentin Blake.
It was a holiday – camping naturally – on the Gower Peninsula in Wales that the decision was made to set up a campsite. All well and good, but where and how?
Sussex was the target county but finding a site through traditional routes and sources proved fruitless, until the couple decided to try cattle markets and sheep auctions and approach the farmers direct, with a flier on a car window eventually doing the trick. Westerlands rang; the mist lifted to unveil the land and the deal was done with Oliver Hancock and Antonia Jamison.
“It is proving a great partnership. The estate is very much about diversification with a strong business focus, but also sustainability and the use of its own produce – be it meat, vegetables or logs for the fires,” says Gurney.
A picture in Seven Fires, the book by Argentine chef Francis Mallmann was the dream template for the set-up, bringing a taste of South America to the South Downs.
There was Serendipity on the Sussex menu too, as woodsman Dave Watson (a student of master craftsman and eco-builder Ben Law, whose Woodland House featured on Grand Designs) lived on the estate and so the camp kitchen was expertly eco-crafted out of chestnut, coppiced from the local woods. Watson is now running the couple’s second camp beneath Firle Beacon near Firle in East Sussex.
Griffiths can talk until the cows come into the tent about compost toilets, showers and drainage, but they are eco-luxe and a labour of environmental love and fundamental to the camp ethos of sustainability and recycling, leaving the land in a better place.
However, they are never happier than when talking about food, with provenance and minimal waste sitting alongside local ingredients – and you cannot get more local than venison, lamb and pork from the Westerlands farm – and meals cooked by great chefs, be they established or up and coming. The finest of live fire dining in the most rustic of al fresco ‘restaurants’.
Daniel Britten is one such chef, whose business was decimated by the pandemic, but has pivoted to event cooking, demos, pop-ups and outdoor theatre at locations such as Woodfire, loving the opportunity you don’t get in traditional restaurants, to engage directly with the campers who queue up not only to eat your hyper-local, hyper-seasonal food, but watch you cook it, asking questions – looking and learning as well as eating.
The Woodfire feasts are already the stuff of legend, collaborating with inventive chefs and restaurant brands and particularly encouraging young development chefs and cooks to expand their live-fire repertoire, while enjoying a break from the white heat of the infernal, internal kitchen.
“This is the opportunity to cook and work outside; enjoy the environment and interact with guests, something chefs don’t get the chance to do. Our feasts are proving incredibly popular and our cooks are brilliant and inspirational,” says Gurney.
It is not just families and friends who populate the campsite; corporate days and nights are held too, escaping from the boardroom for some feasting, foraging and stargazing – blue chip meets wood chip.
Go for a walk in the woods via a pub lunch, or even a run or a workout – mental and physical well-being in a Dark Sky Reserve.
You sense a food, make that lifestyle, revolution has started with outside dining and living creating so much sensory joy that the erratic British weather is less frequently the topic of conversation or a lame excuse for not doing it.
Griffiths and Gurney, with their two sons Jack and Sam, practice what they preach. Their family tent maybe the scruffiest in the field, but they live and sleep onsite whenever possible, occasionally ducking home to Brighton, as well as cooking for and entertaining their guests.
Any more lamb Dan? And that BBQ beer was the perfect pairing. Camping and live fire cooking have always gone together, but never quite like this.
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