Our nearest town, Leominster, has for years stubbornly resisted the kind of gastronomic airs and graces so enthusiastically exuded by Ludlow, 12 miles up the road. But I'm delighted to say that things are changing. A fine new delicatessen, the Broad Street Deli, has opened, run by an urbane, 45-year-old Frenchman called Eric Celton. And, perhaps in response, Leominster's venerable existing deli, Barber & Manuel, has been taken over and tarted up.
Eric is a rare breed in north Herefordshire, being from the western extremity of the continent, rather than the eastern end. I read somewhere recently that five per cent of the Herefordshire workforce is now Polish. At any rate, it is rare these days to walk through the middle of Hereford and not hear a Kazimierz talking to a Wojciech. It's a phenomenon on which Sainsbury's has very resourcefully pounced, opening a dedicated marinated herring and pickled beetroot section. Elsewhere in Hereford, a Polish grocer's shop has opened, and I also heard that an optician in Leominster recently invited a customer to read the bottom line of an eye chart, to be told, "Funny, that's the name of my cousin." But maybe that's just a cobwebby old joke.
Anyway, back to Eric, who comes from Les Sables d'Olonne in the Vendée and is married to a woman from Sutton Coldfield. It was in her home town rather than his that they ran a restaurant for eight years, called not Les Sables de Coldfield, alas, but La Truffe. Eric tells me that La Truffe was a favourite of the Two Fat Ladies, and also that the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, a fan of Frenchmen called Eric, rated it highly.
But when the Celtons started a family, they decided that being full-time restaurateurs was not compatible with parenthood. So they sold the business, moved to Tenbury Wells, and Eric became an employee, as head chef at a a coaching inn called The Peacock. Six years later he concluded that he'd had enough of working evenings, so he decided to open a deli. And although Ludlow was his first choice, Leominster is where he finally alighted.
Eric's intention is to provide top-notch home-cooked meals for those who don't have the time – he is far too generous to suggest that they might also lack the savoir-faire – to do so for themselves. I liked the answer he gave to a woman who was in there at the same time as me the other day, and asked why he doesn't have a menu. "Because then I'd have to stick to it," he said, in his French accent direct from Central Casting. In other words, he just cooks what takes his fancy, which that day was boeuf bourguignon, which I resisted, and exquisite individual lemon meringue tarts, which I didn't.
I hope The Broad Street Deli prospers. Just a few doors down, a shop selling organic produce is on its last legs, with a rather peevish notice in the window saying that the business is closing "due to continued poor sales". It's all your fault, is the message, and perhaps it is, although at least I have the excuse that many of the organic vegetables I eat are lifted from my own soil (which this autumn has not quite been the wholesome pleasure it normally is, with potatoes the size of grapes and limping runner beans).
Still, sorry as I am to see a food retailer go under, it does not detract from the sense that Leominster is coming up in the world. For weeks Jane and I have been hearing great things about a new Indian restaurant on West Street, the Bangla Lounge, which we kept trying to find but for the life of us couldn't see, only to discover, ironically enough, that it is above Specsavers (perhaps the very Specsavers where the Polish customer recognised his cousin's name).
We finally went there the other night with some friends and had what was unequivocally the finest curry I have had for years. Better still, the Bangla Lounge is unlicensed, so we took our own alcohol and the bill for four of us came to a mere £58, which is £342 less than the bill for two – two! – recently encountered by a couple we know at Ludlow's poshest new restaurant. It is heresy to say so round here, but I think Leominster might be getting the edge over Ludlow, gastro-wise.