Ludlow, Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 19:29 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

'How many places in the UK have three terrific butchers, three brilliant bakers and two cheese shops that are next door to each other and both really busy?

'How many places in the UK have three terrific butchers, three brilliant bakers and two cheese shops that are next door to each other and both really busy?

Sarah Hart went in search of good taste in the town that some said was losing its culinary crown - and left well-satisfied.

Sarah Hart went in search of good taste in the town that some said was losing its culinary crown - and left well-satisfied.

It is the first Wednesday of the month and 10 salivating foodies are shoehorned into the gleaming stainless steel kitchen of Ludlow's latest, raved about, fine dining experience, La Bcasse Restaurant.

Some keenly scribble into note books, others watch intently as a cheery, flame-haired, young man - Ludlow's newest Michelin-starred chef, Will Holland - launches into his regular cookery demonstration.

Each month he chooses something seasonal. Last time it was sea trout. Today he's demonstrating myriad ways of stuffing and cooking courgette flowers, and later his audience will sample them as part of a palate-busting gourmet lunch washed down with a glass of fine wine.

In the kitchen the gastronomes are ringside to the nerve centre of La Bcasse. Around them Will's talented team of chefs are busily preparing lunch - knives chopping, pots bubbling, pans sizzling.

Life has been a non-stop whirlwind for the 29-year-old since the 2009 Michelin Guide honoured La Bcasse with a coveted star last January - just 18 months after the restaurant opened. A few months ago The Hairy Bikers dropped in to take on Will in the kitchen as part of their new series to be aired in the autumn, and only last month he was invited onto James Martin's Saturday Kitchen Live in front of a TV audience of more than eight million.

He has also been asked to contribute to a new book covering recipes by 20 leading chefs. But the icing on the cake for Will, who even as a boy "never wanted to be anything else but a chef", was the kudos of an Acorn Award - the accolade bestowed by a panel of top hospitality experts to 30 of the best rising talents in the industry.

To achieve all this by the age of 29 is phenomenal, but what's good for Will and the Alan Murchison-owned La Bcasse is also good news for Ludlow's gastronomic reputation.

For a couple of years the town's crown as the "real food capital of Britain" was seen to have slipped following the loss of two of its most famous Michelin-starred chefs, Shaun Hill, of The Merchant House, who moved on to other projects and Claude Bosi who relocated his two-Michelin starred restaurant, Hibiscus, to Mayfair.

Ludlow 'had to make do with just the one' Michelin star at Mr Underhill's. "Not such great news for the town's reputation as a honeypot for gastronomes," blasted an article in The Guardian which went on to speculate which town was poised to steal Ludlow's mantle - Padstow, in Cornwall, or Marlow in Buckinghamshire?

"But it was quite a negative way of looking at it," says Will.

"The real food culture within Ludlow hadn't changed at all."

It still had its glut of artisan food shops, including award-winning family butchers, traditional bakers, fabulous cheese shops, delicatessens, organic and wholefood shops. It had weekly continental-style food markets plus a regular farmers' market and the Ludlow Food Centre, the swanky food hall dedicated solely to fresh local produce opened up just down the road at Bromfield. The famous annual Ludlow Food Festival - the very first of its kind in the UK - continued to pull in the crowds from far and wide, and the numbers of dynamic 'real food' producers around and about Ludlow flourished.

Such is the rate of growth of local artisan producers that Ludlow Food Festival organisers felt able to launch an off-shoot of the food and drink festival this year. The Spring Event, held in May, attracted thousands of people.

Padstow and posh Marlow might have a few good restaurants but neither can compete with Ludlow's all pervading real food culture.

Visit specialist food shops in the town and you'll find them well stocked with produce from Shropshire and the neighbouring counties of Powys, Staffordshire and Herefordshire. The Local to Ludlow food campaign is a vibrant force and The Slow Food Movement, promoting traditional regional food and sustainable food production, is an influential voice here.

According to Judy Bradley, who runs Ludlow's oldest Michelin-starred restaurant Mr Underhill's with her chef husband Chris, it was the existing plethora of good local food producers that attracted them to relocate their restaurant from Suffolk to Ludlow 12 years ago. Shaun Hill had cited the same reasons for opening a restaurant in the town three years earlier.

"We jokingly said that you could live in Ludlow without a fridge because you could walk through the town and pick up lots of lovely things to eat, and you can do that even more so today," says Judy.

"The meat is particularly outstanding. The fruit and the vegetables are good, and there are always new and interesting producers coming on line."

Will talks with the enthusiasm of a child in a sweet shop.

"The amount of local produce that's available to me as a chef and the general public in Ludlow is phenomenal. It's so exciting and so easy to have it on your doorstep.

"The other day we were out of English asparagus, the English asparagus season was nearly at an end, but I could simply run up the road to the market and buy the last of it.

"There's a whole vibe in the town, people care about food and they're spoiled for choice. How many places in the UK have three terrific butchers, three brilliant bakers and two cheese shops that are next door to each other and both really busy?"

For the people of Ludlow, celebrating their 14th food festival this September, the town never really lost its crown. Yet the restoration of a second Michelin star, from a public relations point of view, works magic to re-focus a national, and indeed an international, gastronomic spotlight back on the town, and that's good news for everyone.

La Bcasse has seen its weekend bookings massively increase. Shops in the town have noticed growing numbers of visitors staying at weekends to sample the delights of both Michelin restaurants, but their main trade comes from the people who live around and about Ludlow.

It seems incredible that such a market town of this size can support two artisan cheese shops, plus, on food market days a third specialist cheese retailer, but they all enjoy a roaring trade.

One of them is The Mousetrap Cheese Shop - owned by the Monkland Cheese Dairy of Hereford. It has three cheese shops - one in Hereford and one in Leominster - but its Ludlow shop is the busiest, despite the competition.

Such are the reputations of Ludlow's three butchers that they attract regular patrons from as far as Birmingham. Their customers appreciate the fact that A.H. Griffiths has retained its own slaughterhouse and the meat, sourced from a 20 mile radius, is hung for a minimum of 24 days to mature more slowly, or the fact that D.W Wall & Son specialises in old British breeds.

Alan Griffiths, of A. H. Griffiths, says he remembers 13 butchers in the town when he began in the trade 25 years ago, which, perhaps, puts things into perspective. Only a few years ago Ludlow enjoyed five butchers. Carter's closed last year due to retirement. So nothing in Ludlow can be taken for granted.

While, sadly, craft bakeries are declining at an alarming rate all over the country, Ludlow's continue to work hard to rake in the national awards.

Price's Bakery, in Castle Street, last year won a Waitrose Made In Britain Award and is a favourite for the artisan section of the British National Bakery Awards this year.

Founded 68 years ago and one of Rick Stein's Food Heroes, Price's is still making bread in the traditional way with a long fermentation for maximum flavour.

"It keeps for longer and because you don't get nasty chemicals in it, people with a wheat and gluten intolerance can eat our bread," explains master baker Peter Cook.

"Every day we get people coming from Shrewsbury and Hereford to buy bread from us."

Ludlow's reputation certainly helps businesses to get noticed on the national stage. And the Michelin star restaurants are not the only great gastronomic destinations in town. There are many with AA rosettes and Koo Japanese restaurant, Dinham Hall and Fishmore Hall are all building up quite a collection of good reviews in national newspapers.

Ludlow's glory days are far from over. Perhaps next year will see a third Michelin star restored to the town.

"Ludlow is definitely on an upward spiral," adds Judy Bradley.

"It is incredible what it has achieved, particularly when you consider that it's a town of just 10,000 people."

* Ludlow Food Festival September 11 to 13.

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