My love for restaurants blossoms more at night. During the day I generally prefer the informal vibe of a café. Enter the Castle Café in Ludlow. As its name suggests, it’s not a restaurant. So, it suits my preference when it comes to daytime eating. While you can pop in for coffee and cake, it also serves proper food. I mean food that’s cooked from raw ingredients. On the premises. Wholesome soups and gutsy stews and casseroles. Homemade soda bread, whose comforting aroma wafts through the air. The sort of substantial fare that fortifies you against nippy autumn and winter conditions.
Seasonal dishes from locally-grown produce
It’s almost as if chef-proprietor Damien Macnamara checks the weather on his journey to work before deciding what to cook: “Hmm… it’s a bit chilly today,” I imagine him thinking: “I’ll cook something warm and hearty.”
Indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact that it takes quite some time to create delicious food from scratch, Damien could also collect the raw ingredients during his commute as most of the produce originates in Shropshire.
In this sense, think of the Castle Café as serving bowlfuls of mindfulness. Its seasonal dishes are made with produce that’s straight from fields nearby. Hearty dishes will give way to lighter fare when the clocks spring forward again.
Fast-talking chef chop-chops his way through our chat
Damien is so in-the-moment, so passionate about what he does, he expresses himself at about 4,000mph. This ebullience is great for customers as it results in well-considered food that’s brimming with flavour. For his stews he talks about braising meat so slowly it almost drips from the bone after hours of gentle simmering. But, from a writer’s point of view, note-taking during a chat with Damien is like trying to spray graffiti on the side of a moving train.
Fortunately, that kind of pace doesn’t spill into the Castle Café’s dining areas. Here, the atmosphere is relaxed. The waitresses are smiley and chatty. There’s some joking between them and the regular customers they clearly know well.
This kind of affability would be welcome in any café in any location. But given the pandemic and changing restrictions, eateries have gained more resonance for many. They’re sanctuaries for people to get out of their homes for a short while to meet (a few) close friends and family members. The Castle Café provides this safe environment with measures in place beyond what the government demands. Tables are well-spaced. Staff members are well-versed. It’s as clean as crisp autumn air.
More indoor space opening for the colder months
Damien only started trading in July 2020, so his stewardship has all been in our current restricted times. The Irish chef is grateful for the fantastic support the café has enjoyed since it opened its doors and is optimistic this will continue throughout the chillier months. He plans to open an additional room that will bring the total up to four, so another eight guests can enjoy safe, indoor space after the café’s outdoor eating area has surrendered to the weather.
“My main objective at the moment is to guarantee jobs for our staff,” Damien says in his Irish lilt. “The café’s layout actually helps as far as the current restrictions are concerned, as it’s divided into four small rooms by solid walls and we have a proper one-way system in place,” he adds.
Christmas is coming
The Castle Café has already begun taking bookings for the four sittings it has available for Christmas lunches on Wednesday 23 December. At only £27.50 per head for a sumptuous three-course meal, it’s easy to see why tables are being snapped up. The menu features game birds as well as beef with celeriac and watercress. And growing numbers of vegetarians will be pleased to see a goat’s cheese soufflé on offer, served with mushrooms and tarragon.
In just a few months, Damien has managed to create a delicious eatery that sits snugly between a café and restaurant. If you enjoy proper food during daytime, you’re in for a treat.
The Castle Café, Ludlow Castle, Castle Square, is open 10-4pm every day except Wednesdays. Get in touch via its Facebook page or by calling 01584 878796.