All you can eat - and more besides

Ludlow boasts more foodies than you can shake a scallop at. But now that Tesco has moved in, will they be starved of quality?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Shaun Hill struggles up the rear garden path to his restaurant, The Merchant House, carrying a third load of the morning's shopping. There's a basket of freshly picked vegetables from a local gardener, several artisan cheeses from Ludlow Larder, summer fruit from his favourite stall in the market and, among the myriad heavy plastic bags straining at the handles, a curiously familiar red logo. He's been to Tesco. The UK's number one multiple grocer has opened a shiny new superstore, two minutes' walk up Corve Street, on the site of Ludlow's old cattle market.

Shaun Hill struggles up the rear garden path to his restaurant, The Merchant House, carrying a third load of the morning's shopping. There's a basket of freshly picked vegetables from a local gardener, several artisan cheeses from Ludlow Larder, summer fruit from his favourite stall in the market and, among the myriad heavy plastic bags straining at the handles, a curiously familiar red logo. He's been to Tesco. The UK's number one multiple grocer has opened a shiny new superstore, two minutes' walk up Corve Street, on the site of Ludlow's old cattle market.

Excitedly, the chef pulls out a box of own-label mini-éclairs. They are not tonight's petit fours, but for coffee now. Then he tosses a bag of three perky pak choi over to the sink. "I like to do vegetables to match the food and I thought they would go well with the fish - seabass with basil and crÿme fraîche tonight," he explains, adding dryly: "In fact, I wouldn't give my customers anything less than Tesco pak choi."

Somerfield must be gutted by his sudden lack of custom. "I reckon now's a good time to go to Somerfield, because the queues won't be as long. Here, have another mini-éclair, they're only small."

The phone rings for what seems like the umpteenth time that morning. Another optimist is trying to book a table. "No, sorry, we're fully booked and have been for some time," Hill says. "There's a food festival on here that weekend." If the chap wanted a table for the evening of Friday 8 September, when the sixth annual Ludlow food festival will be underway, he should have booked last December, and no, The Merchant House hasn't any tables available on Saturday night until the end of the year.

Hill puts down the phone and looks unhappy. He hates this advance booking palaver. "I don't know where or what I want to eat in six months' time - why should anyone else?" he says. But it seems to be part and parcel of the Ludlow phenomenon - this freaky situation - whereby a small market town in rural Shropshire with a population of 10,000 has more highly-rated restaurants and gourmet food shops than anywhere in the UK outside London. Its food festival attracts 7,500 people, with delegates from China due to attend this year, and representatives from Ludlow's twin towns in Normandy and Italy coming to sell their specialities at the market inside Ludlow Castle.

Ludlow's newest fine-dining establishment, Hibiscus, was fully booked for the weekend of the food festival before the restaurant even opened. Chef-patron Claude Bosi built an excellent reputation at Overton Grange, a country house hotel on the outskirts of town, while simultaneously stealing the heart of Claire, the Merchant House waitress. In May they set up Hibiscus together in the listed building that was Ken Adams's Oaks Restaurant. Meanwhile, Overton Grange has replaced Bosi with Wayne Vickerage, a graduate from the kitchens of Pied à Terre and David Cavalier's Chapter One in London.

There seems to be more respect than rivalry between the chefs. Hill dined at Overton Grange just recently and thought Vickerage's veal sweetbreads with garlic velouté a knockout, ditto the scallops with petit pois. But Claude Bosi has become a particular friend, and Claire's knowledge of both kitchens means there's little point in them trying to hide recipes from each other.

"Claude's an authentic new talent," Hill says of the young Frenchman. "He has the scope to be a three-star chef. One magazine said Hibiscus was like a slice of Lyon in the middle of Ludlow, but in fact you'd be hard-pressed to get food that good in Lyon these days."

Claude Bosi's restaurant is bang-opposite the new Tesco and he eyes it uneasily through Hibiscus's beautiful leadlight front windows. "Tesco are getting involved in the community and trying to support it, which is good, but are they going to get involved when the shop next door to us is struggling?" He's a Ludlow man at heart now, even if his tastebuds are still in the south of France. His neighbour, Jane Straker of Myriad Organics, has no intention of struggling in the shadow of Tesco and is confident she can compete with the superstore on range, freshness, price and service.

"There is a lot of pressure in Ludlow to stock local foods. My husband is an organic market gardener and we also buy from the local growers' cooperative." She's compared her prices with Tesco's and finds she's on par. Up on Mill Street, in the Farmer's Produce Market established in 1960, Uncle Fred's tomatoes and soft fruit are highly sought after and the spacious shop easily competes with the superstore in its range of British and imported produce. There are local greengages and Victoria plums, as well as exotics such as pomegranates and galangal.

John Fleming, the resident publisher who started and still organises the Ludlow food festival, believes the six butchers - whose ranges of local meat, game and special recipe sausages have helped make the town and festival such a focal point for food enthusiasts - have nothing to worry about, either. The butchers vie to outdo each other with wacky sausages, and draw to the festival beer and banger-lovers as well as the serious foodies who come to watch the chefs demonstrate.

Admittedly the town is about to lose one of its fine food shops, when Ludlow Larder, which supplies cheese to Hill, Bosi and Vickerage, closes in mid-September because the owners wish to move on. But Hill believes it's the rents and parking fees that make small businesses suffer in the town, not the presence of a relatively small supermarket which, curiously, has a significant amount of space devoted to an instore café. Tesco clearly clocked the local passion for eating out and now runs Ludlow's biggest restaurant - the al fresco terrace alone has more tables than The Merchant House or Hibiscus. Éclair, anyone?

Ludlow Festival, 8-10 September (09068 884526), or visit www.foodfestival.co.uk and www.ludlow.org.uk Entry to castle £3 per person per day; family ticket 2 adults and up to four children £8; three-day tickets £7.50 adults, £3.50 children.

PICK OF THE CROP

DINING

Les Marches, Overton Grange Hotel, on the B4365, Overton, nr Ludlow (01584 873500, www.overtongrange.co.uk). Wayne Vickerage brings London style to Ludlow, but produce is as local as the garden. Igi Gonzalez's cellar has rare wines from Australia and Spain.

Hibiscus, 17 Corve Street (01584 872325). He answers the phone, he does the cooking - alone when necessary. Claude Bosi's not starstruck, but customers will be, and the décor's delightful.

The Merchant House, Lower Corve Street (01584 875438). Epicentre of the Ludlow phenomenon, Shaun Hill's back-to-basics venue is lauded as a one-man band, but those fab desserts and breads are made by his wife Anja.

Mr Underhill's, Dinham Weir (01584 874431). Set right beneath the castle, Chris and Judy Bradley's restaurant, with rooms, is top choice for views of the River Teme. Plan well in advance for a summer visit.

Ego Café-Bar, Quality Square (01584 878000). Guy Crawley and Michael Martin produce the best coffee in town, and good casual meals in a fun atmosphere. Ego is housed in a charming leafy square off the main market area.

SHOPPING

AG Griffith's, 11 The Bull Ring (01584 872 141). Spick-and-span butcher with its own Soil Association-registered slaughterhouse for total quality control. Hereford beef, Shropshire pork, Marches lamb.

Reg Martin & Sons, 1 Market Square (01584 872008). Ludlow's most picturesque store with a fine display of local hares and rabbits, free-range rare breed pork, and wild venison.

Myriad Organics, 22 Corve Street (01584 872665). One of Ludlow's myriad organic shops. Jane Straker has an excellent range of healthy and ethically traded specialities including organic meat from Graig Farm and fine local bread.

Broad Bean, 60 Broad Street (01584 874239). A tasty blend of health food store, deli and coffee merchant. Improving sacks of grain sit alongside luxurious Patchwork pâtés from Wales, speciality flours from mills nearby and a range of local and continental cheeses.

Farmer's Produce Market, 1 Mill Street (01584 873532). A chefs' favourite although Farmer is the family name, not the profession. Still, there's plenty here from local growers including Uncle Fred and the family also run the fruit and veg stall in the market.

LUDLOW'S RIVALS FOR THE TITLE OF FOODIEST PLACE IN BRITAIN

Padstow, Cornwall

A Cornish fishing and holiday village with a population of 3,500 has earned the nickname Padstein. In the five years since his TV career took off, Rick Stein has added to the 100-seat Seafood Restaurant he opened 25 years ago. Now there's his St Petroc's Hotel and Bistro, Rick Stein's Cafe, his two delicatessens and the Padstow Seafood School he opened in February. Two other restaurants, Brocks and Margot's, offer an alternative to Stein's seafood empire, and a pub, The Old Custom House Inn, is rated for its cooking.

Windermere, Cumbria

More than 30 years ago, the legendary John Tovey put the Lake District village of 9,500 residents on the map when he opened the opulent Miller Howe. It's now under new ownership, but still known for exceptional cooking. Others have followed, notably country house hotels Holbeck Ghyll and Gilpin Lodge on its fringes, combining luxurious food with accommodation. Jerichos, opened in 1998 by an ex-Miller Howe chef, consolidates its position, and the Porthole, in neighbouring Bowness, bolster Windermere's reputation for nurturing diners amid the wilds.

Dartmouth, Devon

The Carved Angel, whose Christmas puddings, jams and pickles are sold by mail order, is still going strong by the harbour, although pioneering chef Joyce Molyneux sold it earlier this year. At the same time, a South American restaurant became the South African-owned Table Mountain for contemporary tapas; and a seafood restaurant called Hooked replaced The Exchange, whose owner opened Café Caché. Cutter's Bunch near the Yacht Club is another noted restaurant, as is Bayards. The Carved Angel also has a café and is planning to open a deli. All this for 7,000 permanent residents.

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Beats Southwold - the other contender along a stretch of coast known as England's answer to the Hamptons - by having a cookery school over the road from the Lighthouse, which, with Regatta and Café 152 earn it three strikes in the guide books. There's also Skandelicious, a Swedish seafood café, and in summer, when the population doubles from its hard-core 2,780, a continuous queue outside the fish-and-chip shop. Plus an ice cream parlour, fishmonger, butcher, baker and an independent wine shop.

Bray-on-Thames, Berkshire

The Waterside Inn, which Michel Roux opened 27 years ago, and has been awarded three Michelin stars for the past 15, puts Bray in a unique position. It's the location of Britain's only three-starred restaurant. More recently Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck has earned rave reviews and one Michelin star, and pub, The Fish, is known for its food.

-Caroline Stacey

Comments