The Harp Lane Deli has the look of the perfect English country-town food shop. It's location on the charming market square, the Union Jack bunting, the old bay windows bursting with the promise of local delicacies such as Kirkham's Lancashire and onion tart, and Puy lentil salad with Royal Worcestershire tomatoes: all of these things say "food problems solved." Everything about it is perfect.
Well, everything except the "closed" sign.
To be fair, we had left it late. By 5:00 p.m., the sun was setting in the western wilds out over Wales, past the soft Shropshire hills. But we had driven all day, we were famished and we needed something to take to our rented cottage by the weir on the River Teme. So we tried the door.
Luckily, it opened. Henry, the consummate deli owner, had seen the likes of us before: hungry food pilgrims newly arrived in Ludlow, much in need of help. Did he roll his eyes? Perhaps. But the foodie in him couldn't abide us starting our Ludlow stay with something prepackaged from Tesco. He set us up with a basket of great ingredients and generously decanted a custom amount of his best olive oil in return for a donation to a local charity.
We soon discovered that Henry's expertise, and his eagerness to share it, are de rigueur in Ludlow – the original "English Food Town" as some call it.
Just far enough from London to be special, yet close enough to be a weekend destination for city dwellers, Ludlow has somehow dodged the bullet that has plagued many other English towns in recent years: a slow death at the hands of suburban superstores and empty High Street shops. It thrives, as it always has, as a market centre for a whole region with a healthy farming culture, great food and warm hospitality.
Its setting doesn't hurt. Ludlow sits among the verdant green waves of A.E. Housman's Shropshire hills on the edge of the Marches, that ancient borderland between Wales and England. It's a land that has seen centuries of conflict, and Ludlow castle, an atmospheric ruin dating from 1086 and once the home of Henry VI, sits on its crag above a bend in the Teme, looking out over the shadowed depths of Mortimer Forest. The town boasts an impressive display of Tudor and Georgian buildings – almost 500 listed buildings in a town of 10,000 people, many found in a maze of medieval lanes – and a parade of textbook Georgian properties along the pretty Broad Street.
The Ludlow Food Festival, which began in 1995 and is the longest running food celebration in Britain, is what helped first put the town on the world's culinary map. It attracts more than 20,000 visitors every fall for three days of tastings, demonstrations by top chefs and events such as the famous sausage trail – last year a magnet for more than 2,000 lovers of the British banger. Add to that the contest for pork pie of the Marches, the cake competition and the ale trails, and those three days seem very short indeed. A spring festival joined the calendar 10 years ago, running this year on May 12 and 13 with an emphasis on real ales.
Thanks to the festivals, hundreds of local producers are given a showcase for the best independent food and drink. This, in turn, has spawned a rich variety of green grocers, restaurants and farm shops in Ludlow and the valleys close by. The connective tissue is an emphasis on quality, a connection to the land: terroir.
This is readily apparent at the market that sets up in the square several times a week, and on "Local to Ludlow" days, when muddy Land Rovers disgorge a bewildering array of goods, from just-laid eggs to delicate courgettes to scrumpy cider brews. On surrounding streets, in addition to Henry's Harp Lane Deli, a jolly gaggle of food shops congregate, all within a few minutes stroll from the castle and each other. The Broad Bean, on Broad Street, for example, sells the best smoked salmon I've ever tried and dozens of delicacies I'll need to return for.
Four family-owned butchers do a roaring trade. We visited Andrew Francis on our second night in town intent on some local partridge or grouse. "Sorry, no," said the friendly red-cheeked butcher, his trilby hat pushed back on his head. "No, you don't want that. Partridge isn't open until next week. What you'll be wanting is a nice a haunch of our venison. How many are you feeding?" He wasn't going to sell game birds if they hadn't been freshly sourced from the bushes of a nearby estate.
The Mousetrap, a dedicated cheese shop barely the size of our rental car, filled out our "Local to Ludlow" jute bag. With more than 150 varieties creating a smell that only a cheese aficionado could love, selection involved lots of furrowed-brow sampling. With expert help we settled on a wedge of Shropshire Blue and three others. (Okay, maybe six.)
The cheese people in turn directed us to a green grocer for some of the freshest, plumpest produce I'd ever seen: Swedes, carrots, dozens of potato varieties, leeks and an array of mushrooms – all liberally caked with black topsoil from nearby farm fields.
This freshness and simplicity are also at the heart of restaurants in this town, an original player in the slow food movement in Britain.
The focus here is on fewer ingredients and quality rather than complexity – this is hike-the-hills-then-sit-by-the-log-fire food.
Mortimers on Corve Street, run by chef Wayne Smith, carries the flag for the many fine restaurants in town. In the former premises of Claude Bosi's two Michelin-starred Hibiscus (which moved to London), there is some weight of culinary stardom to live up to. And Smith does so with straightforward food that is all about provenance and flavour. Book early, and try the strip of Hereford beef sirloin served with roasted shallots and baby leeks. Next to the castle, Elliot's, a French bistro run by Olivier Bossut in the elegant Dinham Hall Hotel, provided us with a great evening out as well. The cassoulet Toulousain was excellent. Elegant dining in a classic Georgian house: My inner Mr. Darcy approved.
Depth and new talent bodes well for the future. David Chantler, vice-chair of the Food Festival, says: "The three local, and as it happens young chefs who, for me best represent the trend might be Josh Crouch at CSons at the Green Cafe, Andy Link at the Riverside and Karl Martin at Old Downton Lodge. The restaurant story continues to develop."
Even when it comes to libations, Ludders punched above its weight. You could visit the tiny parlour pub The Dog Hangs Well in Corve Street and try that day's local ale (no sign, but you'll know its open if the antique street light is burning outside) or try one of the many thriving traditional pubs. Stop in at The Wheatsheaf, which is built into the walls beside the town's only remaining medieval gate, or wend your way down the narrow alleyway that leads to the Rose and Crown Inn, one of England's oldest, plying its trade for more than 600 years. Or maybe take the advice of Monty Lowe, the historian and author we met in the Buttercross Museum. "Try the back rooms at The Feathers for a glass of wine. Classic." Built in 1619 and converted into an inn in 1670, The Feathers Hotel is one of the most famous (and ostentatious) half-timbered Jacobean masterpieces in the country.
Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleans' brother, would have known the area well. He lived in "open confinement" a few streets over in Dinham House in 1811 while his brother was prancing around Europe conquering people. Used now for what must surely be the world's loveliest wood-stove showroom, Dinham House is a Georgian masterpiece of stately symmetry. Lucien may have been "a guest of the King" but he had a retinue of servants and, no doubt, a steady supply of very fine Ludlow foodstuffs.
He knew it, the Tudors and Stewarts before him knew it, and anyone who visits today will soon learn: Ludlow is a fine town to be confined in for a few days, or better yet a week.
Just make sure you get to the deli before closing time.