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They know a thing or two about food in Shropshire.

Mon, 12 March, 2018

Shropshire is a county in the Midlands, nesting between Birmingham to the east and Wales to the west. I’d not known a lot about it except that was where the Shropshire blue cheese came from. I’m just back from a short stay in Ludlow, a small town at the foot of Shropshire Hills, and I have learnt something now. Mainly that they have much more than just Shropshire Blue as far as good food is concerned.

They used to have three Michelin star restaurants in Ludlow; no more, but by no means do they lack good eateries. French Pantry wouldn’t be out of place in Dordogne or Gascony – they could teleport there lock, stock and keep cooking respectably. Bistro 7 offered me the best burger I have had for a long time, and that’s saying something as I’m quite a burger aficionado. I didn’t try the quirky, two-table Fish House because I ran out of meal times but I approved what saw through the window.

The Ludlow market is famous, reaching its peak at the Ludlow Food Festival each September. I was there in the bleak mid-winter, on a no particular Friday, and the cheese stall featured 110 varieties. They dwell there happily (and cheaply!) not farther than 500m from a dainty specialist cheese shop called Mousetrap.
There are several butchers, with prices at about two thirds of those in the Home Counties; there are bakers and a patisserie; there is the aforementioned fishmonger and old-fashioned greengrocers… And they all thrive.

The population seems varied; neither elderly nor run over with kids. They apparently live in one of the happiest counties: high standard of living, low crime, reasonable prices and beautiful countryside around; the only problem might be the relative remoteness to any major city (Birmingham, anybody? Thought not).

I’d move there tomorrow if I wasn’t too lazy and set in my ways. The region makes me envious; I allegedly live in one of the most desirable parts of the UK and all I have on my High Street are expensive tat shops set up by bored middle-class women only to pack in 12 months later; a shrunken Tesco and an overblown Waitrose; and a weekly fruit and veg market pricier than said Waitrose. It’s not the prices that bug me though – it’s the limited choices on offer, due of course to limited demand.

The stall I buy my cheese from weekly would happily offer 110 or even 1001 varieties, but people only want Cheddar, Brie and unspecified goat’s cheese. Waitrose fish counter features about a dozen fish, all previously frozen – they have better selection in landlocked Austria. Local bakers don’t sell fresh yeast and the (otherwise excellent) butcher tells you to phone in an order for something less usual – like fresh duck.

fresh duck

It’s not the lack of money: there’s plenty of cash from London wages here and folks live in half a million pound properties. You’d think quaint independent shops would flourish – why don’t they? There used to be a fishmonger, an artisan baker and a small Italian deli – now only the coffee shops are artisan, and more of them opening; none yet that would serve a decent breakfast though.

I did think it was the sign of the times; the High Street couldn’t support a fruit and veg shop because of the competition from supermarkets, which also make shopping easy – but it is not so in Shropshire. Not so in the parts of Wales that I’ve seen, and bits of Cornwall. Why are people so much more discerning 100 miles away? It’s not all ye olde England frozen in time – West Country is modern and diverse enough. People there cook more?

I think that must be the answer – people indeed cook more. They have very good restaurants but takeaways, not so much. There are supermarkets, but more of the Aldi and Lidl discount kind than Waitrose with is plethora of plastic ready meals. And it’s the effect rather than the cause: in the areas where the home cooking culture is prevalent, you will have better supply of good quality and reasonable priced produce – because the demand is for better quality.

Why is it so in Shropshire – if I’m right, of course? Is it exactly because it’s remote and access to takeaways isn’t as easy as in Greater London? That sounds rubbish; in modern UK hardly anywhere is a ready meals wilderness. I wish I knew; the answer to that question might help in the battle against obesity as well since the over-processed food diet is a major contributing factor. Perhaps that’s what various government agencies could look at, instead of trying to ban meal deals and capping calories for fast food outlets? But then banning is so much easier than encouraging; giving a man a fish is more convenient than teaching him to catch fish…


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