Shropaholics unite

With his flapping overcoat and bulging bags, Shaun Hill is a familiar figure in the gourmet paradise of Ludlow. Simon Beckett joins him on his daily spree to learn how a Michelin-starred chef picks his produce
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you lay down around here, before you were cold someone would eat you," Shaun Hill says affectionately. He's talking, of course, about Ludlow, the Shropshire town that's become famous as a gastronomic hot spot. The owner and chef of Michelin-starred the Merchant House, which came 14th in Restaurant magazine's list of the world's best restaurants last year, is currently engaged on a favourite part of his routine - shopping for the day's menu. "It's the best bit of the day, because it gets me out of the house. If you live and work in the same place you can get housebound if you're not careful."

If you lay down around here, before you were cold someone would eat you," Shaun Hill says affectionately. He's talking, of course, about Ludlow, the Shropshire town that's become famous as a gastronomic hot spot. The owner and chef of Michelin-starred the Merchant House, which came 14th in Restaurant magazine's list of the world's best restaurants last year, is currently engaged on a favourite part of his routine - shopping for the day's menu. "It's the best bit of the day, because it gets me out of the house. If you live and work in the same place you can get housebound if you're not careful."

It's 10 years since Hill, the former head chef at Devon's Gidleigh Park, opened his restaurant in Ludlow. When he arrived there was just one other restaurant, long since closed. Today there are two dozen and, despite a population of just 9,000, it is the home of more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere in the UK outside London (there are now three including the Merchant House, plus a Michelin-starred pub just outside the town). "We get on well, because we're not competing for a small amount of trade," Hill says. "All the restaurants have seriously different takes on the same grub." His favourites are Mr Underhill's and Hibiscus, the two other Michelin-starred restaurants.

Most of Ludlow's specialist food shops are centred around the town square, where an open-air market adds to the culinary ambiance. This is the area where Hill hunts for fresh meat, cheese and vegetables. The sight of Hill on his shopping expeditions, striding round the square with his carrier bags and flapping overcoat, is a familiar one for Ludlow's residents "This should take 40 minutes, but it regularly takes an hour and a half. I'm let out of my cage for a while, so I'll stop and chat. And I enjoy the contact with the food. I suppose in theory I could phone through an order, but I quite like poking at it."

First stop is Deli on the Square. There are five cheese shops in Ludlow, but Hill likes the way this one keeps its stock, because condition, he says, is just as important as selection. He settles on a piece of Etorki, a ewe's milk cheese from the Pyrenees; a half-round of Cashel Blue and a portion of duck rilette for himself.

Ludlow is even more blessed with butchers than it is cheese shops. There are six, all selling high-quality, locally reared meat. Hill stops to pick up a pig's trotter. "Good to see something like this," he sniffs. The shop is Reg Martin & Sons, a family business with a sign declaring "home-killed meat". Hill prods approvingly at the displayed cuts. "You've got things like salt silverside, pickled brisket, diced veal." Then there are the sausages, an item of serious competition in the town. "I think it's symbolic of their prowess," Hill says. "Some go overboard. I'm not a big fan of sausages with Thai spices."

Next on his list are vegetables. Ludlow is less favoured in this regard, with most of the produce coming through Birmingham's market. Even so, there's a better than average selection at Farmers, a rambling greengrocer in what looks like a former chapel, with stacked boxes containing chicory, wild mushrooms and different varieties of potatoes and apples. "The best time of year for vegetables is August or September. Now you're still on the wintry stuff," Hill says, reaching into a box. "Good celeriac. In fact I shall have some." A sack of shallots - superior to onions, says Hill - also meets with approval, as does the purple sprouting broccoli. "The stalks are tastier than the florets, but they need lifting back." He demonstrates, peeling the skin from the stem. "What's left will be like asparagus. Beautiful."

Laden with provisions, it's decided that a short break is called for. It goes without saying that Ludlow has no shortage of pubs. Hill's local is the Church Inn. Over a pint of Guinness he expands on the factors contributing to Ludlow becoming the gastronomic capital of Britain. One is that, while affluent, property prices have stayed down. Another is that Ludlow's location - far away from any motorways or cities - has dissuaded the chain stores from moving in. The arrival of Tesco two years ago sent a frisson of shock through the town. But the feared loss of trade never materialised. "People aren't stupid. They were already buying their Fairy Liquid and bog rolls somewhere. Now they park in the Tesco carpark, and come here for the rest."

Back at the Merchant House, Hill's wife Anja has been baking bread and puddings. The 24-cover restaurant, in the timbered Jacobean house where the two of them also live, is a cosy place of dark beams and wooden floors. They run it virtually by themselves, helped by only a waitress and a pot-washer. The reason becomes clear when you see the kitchen, more domestic than commercial, and with barely enough room for more than one person to work.

Shopping done, it's now Hill's turn at the stove. As a pan of veal stock bubbles away, he unpacks the bags to start cooking. The cheeses will form a course in themselves, while the vegetables will garnish dishes such as squab pigeon with parsley and basil risotto, or saddle of hare with braised lentils and red wine sauce. It will be 11.30pm before the last customers leave, at which point Hill will relax with a bottle of wine and think the next day. And, perhaps, get round to the duck rilette he bought earlier.

'How to Cook Better', by Shaun Hill, is published by Mitchell Beazley, on 31 March, priced £25

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