Annie Chatterton takes a peek under the petticoats of lovely Ludlow to discover why this quiet Shropshire market town has become one of England’s finest foodie destinations.
The day I called into Harp Lane Deli, arguably the current epicentre of foodie Ludlow, celebrity chef and Middle England’s darling, Nigella Lawson was upstairs tucking into . . . well, I’m not quite sure, exactly. Henry Mackley, one of the Harp Lane Deli owners, born and bred in the Welsh Marches, is a model of discretion.
Perhaps it was the exquisite Portuguese Tarts that are my own personal favourites cooked fresh at Harp Lane every morning. Possibly it was game pie with the ingredients coming from the nearby Mortimer Forest? Wild Boar? Organic truffles? Neat sloe gin distilled in nearby Telford? I’m hoping Nigella opted for an old-fashioned plate of bangers and mash (albeit one featuring organic apple and mustard mash with red onion gravy jus).
Ludlow has a plethora of bangers to choose from: there are five independent, high-class butchers in a town of less than 15,000 people and the annual sausage competition is fiercely contested and massively attended. The Ludlow Food Festival, originally co-founded by Henry Mackley’s parents, is held in September attracts crowds of twenty thousand or more and rooms are booked a year in advance. Huge crowds also attend the nearby summer ‘Magnalonga’ , a Laurie- Lee-style stroll through the stunning outlying countryside which takes in micro-breweries and farm shops and is a perennial hit. Until recently, Ludlow boasted two Michelin-starred restaurants and, even though they have now passed into (recent) history, high-end cuisine can be found down many of Ludlow’s ancient, winding streets, not least at the stylish upmarket joints like Mortimers, Elliott’s or Bistro 7. Chug Chablis at The Fish House while getting yourself outside one of Lou Hackney’s seafood platters. The Ludlow Food Centre just outside town does a great job of flogging produce from the Earl of Plymouth's nearby Oakly Park Estate which extends to approximately 8,000 acres of Shropshire countryside. The Green Cafe at Dinham Green overlooking the picture-postcard weir and bridge, is almost always packed with coffee connoisseurs as is the marvellous Taste at No1 speciality gin palace and pastry emporium in the centre of town. Food in Ludlow is taken seriously.
The question is: why? Why has this quiet, and beautiful, English medieval town – one that poet John Betjeman called ‘the perfect historic town’ – in deepest South Shropshire become something of a beacon for gastronomic excellence?
The answer, I think, lies locally. Shopping locally and sourcing food locally has become an ingrained habit for many in the town. Independent shops huddle under black-and-white Tudor timbered buildings, or up against the worn stone of the ancient castle walls. A market occupies the perfectly proportioned Castle Square every day except Tuesdays (why Tuesdays are exempt I’m not quite sure). The Ludlow Local Produce market was originally set up in 2000 to ‘encourage and facilitate increased local consumption of locally produced food and drink to help mitigate the environmental, economic and social costs of food distribution systems.’ A bit of a mouthful (sorry) but it gives you the essence of what’s happening.
In 2000, when supermarket behemoths like Tesco and Asda seemed hell-bent on crushing all indie shopping under the boot heel of globalisation, shopping locally seemed like a romantically nostalgic notion. Indeed Tesco (along with lesser giants, Aldi) still lurks at the foot of Corve Street, one of Ludlow’s graciously curving Georgian thoroughfares, like a mugger in the shadows. To be fair, the supermarkets do seem to try and assimilate as best they can into a town which views them with suspicion. Ludlow, and the concerted efforts to keep food and shopping a local affair, was both a little before it’s time and more robust than can have been imagined. The mainstream has caught up as Tesco’s grip on the national psyche has loosened and shopping habits altered. Buying local has, once again, become mainstream and nowhere more so than in Ludlow. The ‘Local to Ludlow’ logo that’s become synonymous with shopping local in Ludlow was always for the town as a whole not just the market. Which is why you will find the logo used in local butchers and greengrocers as well as indicating the best spots to eat out.
Tish Dockerty, the market manager, told me, ‘Farmers’ markets have a special status because the food and drink sold has been produced within 30 miles (and often much closer), and is sold by someone involved in the production who can answer your questions about growing methods or ingredients. You will find not only seasonal fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy produce and eggs from local farms, but also home baking, ready meals, preserves and drinks all made in the area.’
For me, the Moroccan, Indian and Jamaican street food, along with other imports from nearby Birmingham, add an important multicultural ingredient that prevents Ludlow becoming simply an ad for the English Tourist Board. Ludlow isn’t all about Yorkshire puds and Sunday roasts. And Ludlow, a town strewn with castles and tudor timbered buildings, wears it’s history lightly: strolling round the local outlet for Clearview Stoves housed in the astonishing Dinham Hall, you might be forgiven for not knowing this was where Napoleon’s brother was imprisoned in 1811.
The other, no less important, factor in this foodie stronghold is booze. The Brits love a pint (or six) and Ludlow is home to an array of half-timbered pubs, gastro and otherwise, serving local ales, and to wine bars and microbreweries and pop-up pubs (like The Dog Hangs Well: a pop-up pub open only ‘when the lamp is lit’). The town is full of – how can I put this? – older hipsters who throng the warmly lit and log-fire warmed bars with enthusiasm.
Achingly lovely pubs like The Wheatsheaf Inn which has been serving fine ales since 1738, tucked right under the old town walls and looking down to the salmon-stuffed River Teme, The Blue Boar, The Feathers and, of course, The Rose and Crown, all compete for your business. One of my favourites is a resurgent gastro-pub: The Unicorn which does a nice line in baked hake and pork belly served in a 500 year-old, low-ceilinged saloon in front of a roaring log fire.
That’s where I’m headed now...fancy a pint?
Annie Chatterton is an Australian/British designer, personal trainer and devoted foodie who divides her time between Australia and Ludlow in the UK. Prior to her current role, Annie was director and co-ordinator of the Ludlow Farm To Fork Education Trail, an initiative aimed at educating children about locally sourced food and improved nutritional habits.