England's foodie heaven

 
 Andrew francis butcher copyright david gillett

Andrew francis butcher copyright david gillett

 

The Harp Lane Deli has the look of the perfect English country-town foodshop. Its location on the charming market square, the Union Jack bunting , the old bay windows bursting with the promise of delicious local delicacies : all of these things say “food problems solved.”   Everything about it is perfect.

Well, everything but the “closed” sign.

To be fair, we had left it late. The sun was setting in the western wilds out over Wales, past the soft Shropshire hills. But we had driven all day, we were famished, and we needed something to take to our rented cottage by the weir on the River Teme. So we tried the door.

Luckily, it still opened. Henry, the consummate deli owner, had seen the likes of us before: hungry food pilgrims newly arrived in Ludlow, much in need of help. Did he roll his eyes? Perhaps. But the foodie in him couldn’t abide us starting our Ludlow stay with something pre-packaged from Tesco. He set us up with a basket of great ingredients, conferred at length with Katy about pasta proportions, and generously decanted a custom amount of his best olive oil in return for a donation to a local charity.

We soon discovered that Henrys’ expertise,  and his eagerness to share it, are de rigueur in Ludlow, the original “English Food Town”, as some call it.  

Its setting doesn’t hurt. Ludlow dwells amongst the verdant green waves of A.E. Housman’s  Shropshire hills on the edge of the Marches, that ancient borderland between Wales and England. It’s a land that has seen centuries of conflict, and Ludlow castle, an atmospheric ruin dating from 1086, sits on its crag above a bend in the Teme, looking out over the shadowed depths of Mortimer’s Forest. Ludlow, like York, was once a seat of government in Tudor and Stewart England and its position at this cross-roads of battling families, royal intrigue and heated cultural exchange has been fuel for the town’s vigorous character for centuries.

 Harp lane deli copyright david gillett

Harp lane deli copyright david gillett

Just far enough from London to be special, yet close enough to be a weekend destination for Londoners and the cognoscenti from nearby Birmingham, Ludlow has dodged the bullet that has plagued many other English towns in recent years:  a slow death at the hands of suburban super stores and empty High Street shops. It thrives, as it always has, as a market centre for a whole region with a healthy farming culture, great food and warm hospitality, being “not so much provincial,” as film maker Jonathan Meade says, “- it actually feels autonomous, devolved, independent…like a de facto state.”

The Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, went further, saying “Ludlow is probably the finest town in England.” A large part of this is the impressive display of well-preserved Tudor and Georgian buildings, almost 500 listed buildings in a town of 10,000 people, older ones in the higgledy-piggledy maze of Medieval lanes, and a parade of textbook Georgian ones ranged along Broad Street, judged by many to be the prettiest street in England. Looking like a location for a period drama, the street is best seen from upstairs at the excellent Ludlow Buttercross Museum, a little jewel of a local museum done right.  Admission charge? One pound.

So, lovely buildings: check. Great location, interesting history: check, check. But what really sets Ludlow apart and makes it worth the drive is its foodie credentials: its grounded connection to the countryside, to local producers, specialty shops and great chefs.

The Ludlow Food Festival is the longest running food celebration in Britain and has helped put the town on the world culinary map. It attracts over 20,000 visitors every fall for three days of tastings and demonstration by top chefs and events including the famous Sausage Trail, last year a magnet for over 2,000 lovers of the British banger. Add to that the competition for Pork Pie of the Marches, the Cake Competition and the Ale Trails and those three days seem very short indeed. A spring festival joined the calendar ten years ago, running this year on 12 & 13 May with an emphasis on real ales.

Thanks to the festivals, hundreds of local producers are given a showcase for the best independent food and drink. This in turn has spawned a rich variety of food shops, restaurants and farm shops in Ludlow and the valleys close by. The connective tissue is an emphasis on  quality, a connection to the land: terroir. Some of the food people I talked to believe that a community’s food choices help maintain the landscape, that the famous “Green and pleasant land” looks as it does because of food and farming; we help support that, and the quality of life in this town, by the food choices we make.

And those choices are legion in Ludlow. The market sets up in the square several times a week, and on “Local to Ludlow” days, muddy Land Rovers disgorge a bewildering array of goods, from just-laid eggs to delicate courgettes to scrumpy cider brews. On surrounding streets, in addition to Henry’s Harp Lane Deli, a jolly gaggle of food shops congregate, all within a few minutes’ stroll from the castle and each other.  Myriad Organics, for example, shows just how diverse a truly local and organic product list can be. The Broad Bean, on Broad Street,  sells the best smoked salmon I’ve ever tried and dozens of delicacies I’ll need to return for. 

Four family-owned butchers do a roaring trade. We visited Andrew Francis on our second night in town intent on some local partridge or grouse.  “Sorry, no,” said the friendly red-cheeked butcher, his trilby hat pushed back on his head. “No, you don’t want that. Partridge isn’t open until next week. What you’ll be wanting is a nice a haunch of our Venison. How many are you feeding?” He wasn’t going to sell game birds if they hadn’t been freshly sourced from the bushes of a nearby estate. We (and the birds) were fine with that. We traded him stories about eating bear roast and moose tenderloin. “O Canada!” he said, grinning. And the venison was lovely.

The Mousetrap, a dedicated cheese shop barely the size of our rental car, filled out our “Local to Ludlow” jute bag. With over 150 varieties creating a smell that only a cheese aficionado could love, selection involved lots of  furrowed-brow sampling. With expert help we settled on a wedge of Shropshire Blue and three others. (Okay, maybe six.)

The cheese people in turn directed us to a green grocers for some of the freshest, plumpest produce I’d ever seen: Swedes, carrots, dozens of potato varieties, leeks, bewildering arrays of mushrooms - all liberally caked with black topsoil from nearby farm fields that can be glimpsed at the end of many of the streets in town, lush green with the frequent rains of the Marches.

Freshness and simplicity are at the heart of everything in this town, an original player in the Slow Food movement in England. And the restaurants are largely no different: fewer ingredients, quality rather than complexity no molecular gastronomy here. This is ‘hike-the-hills-then-sit-by-the-log-fire’ food. Not a test tube in sight. 

To start the day, a street-side table in front of Cichetti is hard to beat. An authentic wake-me-up Macchiato and avocado on toast was a great kick-off. The lamb fleeces on the outdoor chairs were a nice touch, prompting a longer stay and refills. For tea and a slice of amazing carrot-cake, the tiny “local to Ludlow” café is hard to beat. It holds down a prominent corner of the Market Square and is bursting with “local only” products.

Mortimers on Corve Street, run by chef Wayne Smith, (who has cooked for Michael Jackson, Will Smith and a host of Premier League footballers) carries the flag for the many fine restaurants in town. In the former premises of Claude Bosi’s two Michelin-starred Hibiscus (now moved to London), there is some weight of culinary stardom to live up to. And he does so with straightforward food that is all about provenance, flavor and freshness. Try the strip of Hereford beef sirloin served with roasted shallots and baby leeks. Book very early, (but don’t ask for an autograph.)  Next to the castle, Elliott’s, a French bistro run by Olivier Bossut in the elegant Dinham Hall Hotel, provided us with a great evening out as well. The cassoulet Toulosain was excellent. Elegant dining in a classic Georgian House: My inner Mr. Darcy approved. 

Depth and new talent bodes well for the future. David Chantler, vice chair of the Food Festival says:  “The three local, and as it happens young chefs who, for me best represent the trend might be Josh Crouch at "CSons at the Green Cafe”, Andy Link at the “Riverside” and Karl Martin at "Old Downton Lodge". The restaurant story continues to develop.

 The rose and crown copyright David Gillett

The rose and crown copyright David Gillett


Even when it comes to libations, “Ludders” continues to punch above its weight. You could visit the tiny parlour pub “The Dog Hangs Well” in Corve Street and try that day’s local ale. (No sign, but you’ll know it's open if the antique street light is burning outside.) Or try one of the many thriving traditional pubs, like The Wheatsheaf which is built into the walls beside the town’s only remaining medieval gate or wend your way down the narrow alleyway that leads to the Rose and Crown Inn, one of England’s oldest, plying its trade for over 600 years. Or maybe take the advice of Monty Lowe, the historian and author we met in the Buttercross Museum. “Try the back rooms at The Feathers for a glass of wine. Classic.” Classic indeed.  Built in 1619 and converted into an inn in 1670, The Feathers Hotel is one of the most famous (and ostentatious) half-timbered Jacobean masterpieces in the country. The interior rooms maintain their original proportions, ancient beams and plasterwork darkened with age. 

Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, would have known it well. He lived in “open confinement” a few streets over in Dinham House in 1811 while his brother was prancing around Europe conquering people. Used now for what must surely be the world’s loveliest wood-stove showroom, Dinham House is a Georgian masterpiece of stately symmetry. Lucien may have been “a guest of the King” but he had a retinue of servants and, no doubt, a steady supply of very fine Ludlow foodstuffs.

He knew it, the Tudors and Stewarts before him knew it, and anyone who visits today will soon learn: Ludlow is a fine town to be confined in for a few days, or better yet a week. Eating well definitely won’t be a problem.

Just make sure you get to the Deli before closing time.