Ludlow may not provide the top-flight restaurant competition it once did, but the customers remain discerning and demanding. As Janet Harmer learns, local chefs must be at the top of their game
Cooking in Ludlow is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand foodies have flocked here in their droves in recent years to eat at one of the town's three Michelin-starred restaurants, two of which have now moved out, leaving Mr Underhill's as Ludlow's sole holder of a star. On the other hand, the customers are highly knowledgeable - and can therefore be highly critical - about the food put before them.
The latter point is not lost on Marc Hardiman, who, at 25, is head chef of Fishmore Hall, a 15-bedroom boutique hotel with a 40-seat restaurant that opened on the edge of the town in October. "It means we have to be on our toes all the time and ensure we get it right," he says. "But that can only be a good thing. I'm very grateful that the people who come here are really interested in what we're doing."
Hardiman certainly gives his customers something to think about with his modern take on classic dishes and ingredients. "I like to experiment, but not just for the sake of it, as I always ensure there's a balance to every dish," he explains.
For instance, on the à la carte menu, his starter of cod cheeks is a new combination which sees the fish served alongside some lamb's tongue - lightly pickled in a broth of white wine, vinegar, lemon juice, star anise and parsley - plus pancetta and a lentil vinaigrette. "There's a nice balance between the meaty cod, the sourness of the tongue and the rich smoky bacon, with the lentils providing the texture," Hardiman says.
Another starter partners the earthy flavours of a confit of salmon with sweet parsnips and vanilla and the richness of sautéd foie gras.
Hardiman's culinary style is a culmination of the influences he has gathered throughout his career, which has included stints at Castle House in Hereford, Home Park in Bath, the Close in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, Nunsmere Hall near Northwich, Cheshire, Charlton House in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and most recently as head chef at the Greenway in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He also gained considerable experience in reaching the finals of the Gordon Ramsay Scholar Award in 2005.
Main course dishes include an intensely oak-smoked fillet of Herefordshire beef, smoked to Hardiman's specifications by the Organic Smokehouse at nearby Clunbury. An oxtail cannelloni adds to the richness of the dish, while accompanying carrots with caraway and maple syrups provide sweetness, with some freshness in the form of a parsley purée.
Among the desserts, a dish of saffron-poached pears, caramelised crème brûlée and rosewater sorbet has surprised Hardiman by outselling a warm chocolate pudding, which is served with a coconut sorbet, pineapple, chilli and coriander.
In addition to the à la carte menu, priced at £46.50 for three courses, there's also a seven-course Taste of the Marches menu at £55, on which 90% of ingredients are sourced from within 30 miles, and a 10-course gourmand menu at £65.
The local menu is particularly popular, with about 40% of customers opting for it. Hardiman has spent a considerable amount of time sourcing the ingredients for this and the other menus. He has visited as many local suppliers as possible, including Crowsmoor Farm, near Craven Arms, where the free range and organic chickens are reared for at least 75 days for maximum flavour Trudges Farm, near Leominster, which supplies pork the aforementioned Organic Smokehouse and the Monkland Cheese Dairy, also near Leominster, which produces artisan cheeses from unpasteurised milk.
Fishmore Hall opened after a 12-month refurbishment of the Regency property, formerly home to a residential special school. Owner Laura Penman, who has been backed in the project by her parents - financial marketing executive Linton and Linda, a freelance business consultant - aims to provide luxury accommodation with all the trimmings of Frette linen sheets, flat-screen TVs and waterfall-style showers - to match the quality of Hardiman's food.
What's on the menu
A la carte, £46.50 for three courses
- Diver scallops, cauliflower, raisins, sherry
- Terrine of rabbit, emulsified foie gras, hazelnuts, caramelised figs
- Roast quail, boudin of the leg, fried egg, apple jus
- Cornish red mullet, artichokes barigoule, crab ravioli
- Scottish halibut, confit potatoes, cabbage and bacon, cèpes
- Wood pigeon, turnip gratin, orange and walnut, port jus
- Rum roast banana, walnut whip, coffee, bitter chocolate ice
- Assiette of lemon
- Shropshire blue and port cannelloni, walnut and grape salad, toasted fruit bread
Fishmore Hall, Fishmore Road, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 3DP. Tel: 01584 875148 www.fishmorehall.co.uk