Country Life: The gastronomification of Ludlow

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The Welsh Marches are abuzz with the news that the chef Shaun Hill has put his acclaimed Ludlow restaurant The Merchant House up for sale.

The Welsh Marches are abuzz with the news that the chef Shaun Hill has put his acclaimed Ludlow restaurant The Merchant House up for sale. Shaun Hill leaving Ludlow is like Roy Keane leaving Manchester United, or the ravens leaving the Tower of London; on the day that he departs, the foundations of buildings hitherto considered solid will start to crumble, and the River Teme will start flowing uphill. For Hill was the catalyst for the gastronomification - and if that's not a word, it should be - of Ludlow.

The lovely old Shropshire town was not his first choice as a location - he looked first at a dilapidated pub on Bringsty Common near Bromyard, and spent a fortune on architectural plans, before realising, happily for him and for Ludlow, that it would probably break him. The Merchant House, by contrast, is a fantastic business. There are only seven tables, only 20 covers, and if you want to book for lunch or dinner any day between now and January, you're too late. Moreover, he cooks on his own and he lives upstairs; there are scarcely any overheads.

So the reason he is leaving is not because he wants to make more money. It is because he wants more stimulation. He has, he told me last week, produced every single dish he can think of that works for one man with a six-burner stove cooking for 20 people. He yearns for a bigger kitchen, and perhaps the odd sous-chef.

So where is he going? Lots of people think they know, which is strange because he doesn't yet know himself. I heard that he had checked out premises in Hereford, but that is a load of lightly sautéd sweetbreads, apparently. He even read in the Evening Standard that he was going into partnership with Michel Roux, which was journalists leaping, salmon-like, to conclusions. They had seen him and Roux having lunch, he says, to discuss the menus that they jointly devise for British Airways.

He wants to stay in this region, which is good news. Perhaps he will subject another small town to the Merchant House effect. When I asked him whether he credits himself, as others credit him, with putting Ludlow on the gastronomic map, he said modestly that the town 10 years ago "was ripe for it". Which other places are ripe for it now? "It has always astounded me that Malvern does not have a number of good restaurants," he said, an observation which might just excite the good people of Malvern - not that anything gets them too excited in Malvern, from what I've seen of the place. It was there that I saw two extremely elderly women inching across the road, one inching slightly faster than the other. "Sybil," snapped the woman lagging marginally behind. "I said 'walk', not 'run'!''

It seems certain, at least, that Hill will not be taking his culinary talents to London. It exasperates him that "ambitious chefs think they won't be noticed unless they're within a stone's throw of Knightsbridge. In fact, the reverse is true."

Wise words, as you might expect from a Research Fellow in Classics at Exeter University, and you can't say that about Anthony Worrall Thompson. Hill is currently writing a book about food in antiquity, and gave me a fascinating insight into the parallels between food hang-ups now and food hang-ups in ancient Rome. I only phoned to ask his reasons for selling up, and suddenly he was telling me why the Romans didn't eat lemons. Not quite knowing what to say, I suggested to him, admittedly rather obsequiously, that if I had made a booking in the fifth century BC to eat at the Merchant House on a Saturday night between now and Christmas, I might have stood a chance.

If Shaun Hill initiated Ludlow's reputation as a gastronomic destination, the annual Ludlow Food Festival has cemented it. I went this year for the third time, and as usual had a ball, to say nothing of an ill-timed morsel of smoked pilchard. It was ill-timed because it came far too soon after a small plastic spoonful of raspberries in Drambuie, and therein lies the main drawback of the Ludlow Food Festival; there is so much to taste and it all looks so delicious that you start forgetting to say no. Some medium-sweet perry, sir? "Certainly." Some venison, port and garlic sausage? "Why not?" Like to try some basil-infused olive oil? "Yes please." A slice of chocolate mint fudge? "Oh, I think so." Ragstone goat's cheese log? "It would be a shame not to."

If only there'd been a stall offering organic dried Rennies, the day would have been an unqualified success.

Sex, lies and dominoes

There is a farmhouse near us owned by the woman once known as Miss Whiplash. To snip a long tale short, she sold her titillating story to the tabloids and settled in Herefordshire with the proceeds. She now raises and sells ducks. Hundreds of them. Our friend Jane visited the other day but didn't have a clue that she had dealt with the former Miss Whiplash, until my wife, also Jane, told her. Unfortunately, our nine-year-old son Joseph overheard their exchange. "What's a dominatrix?" he duly asked. While Jane, my wife, dithered, Jane, our friend, rose brilliantly to the occasion. "It's someone who plays a lot of dominoes," she said. Joseph went away entirely satisfied. Although it could be that there is a nasty surprise waiting for him later in life.

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