Ludlow has long been a foodie hub. It’s had more than its fair share of Michelin stars, artisan bakeries and butchers specialising in venison and game. It has one of the UK’s oldest and biggest food festivals, a very local (almost) daily market and a medieval Christmas fair. Or is that fayre? Anyway, it’s certainly got the backdrop. Ludlow has some startlingly pretty streets – ancient timbered medieval buildings, grand Georgian houses and charming Victorian terraces. It is surely one of England’s prettiest towns set in lyrical, quintessential English countryside. (On the way up, listen to Robert Tear singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge based on Houseman’s Shropshire Lad to get you in the mood.)
And there’s a new chef making his name here. Andrew Birch has been at Fishmore Hall for a year and word is getting round about his cooking. Even on a cold November Wednesday, the place is packed. You could try pea and mint ravioli, broccoli soup with walnut oil, smoked belly bacon or herb risotto – and that’s just the bar menu. In the restaurant there’s a choice of a la carte or a six or nine course tasting menu. There are spiced hand-picked scallops and line caught Cornish plaice (sustainability is big here), wild duck Wellington or Dorset snails with celeriac and slow cooked egg. Slow cooked egg? For a perfect egg, you cook it in a hot water bath for an hour. Andrew will show you how.
Fishmore Hall doesn’t exactly have cookery classes. Instead, you can book a part or a whole day with Andrew – Shop with Chef and/or Cook with Chef. In the morning you visit his local suppliers (cheese shop, greengrocers, Ludlow Food Centre) and in the afternoon you cook with him. This is not the normal cookery class where a dozen of you in matching aprons stand round an island in the kitchen learning the chef’s set pieces. Andrew specialises in very small groups (often just of two) and asks in advance what you want to learn. Is it how to make fudge or Turkish delight? How to fillet a fish? Sear a scallop? Even a bit of butchery? Just ask and the day is tailored to your needs.
I was intrigued by the water bath oven and the perfect egg. A water bath oven, Andrew explained, is now a staple of the chef’s kitchen (and, yes, you can try this at home with sets online for less than £200). The egg is easy – you just put it in for an hour at the right temperature (63 degrees) – and it comes out with a just firm white and deliciously runny yolk. Andrew uses it for other dishes, too, and showed me the lobster tail that he vac-packed (another bit of the kit) with some of his creamy Irish butter (10 minutes at 60) and served with swede fondants and puree, pickled and fresh pear and a garlic sauce. This was so delicious I had it twice (as my starter at dinner). The vac-packing and water oven are brilliant but not, Andrew said, for everything. If you tried it for a duck breast, for instance, you’d end up with the fat uncooked and perfectly revolting. Nevertheless, it might be going on my Santa list.
Andrew is passionate about his cooking and his aim is to retain the fullest possible taste in every ingredient. He smokes his own fish, bakes his own bread, makes a sauce from left-over lobster shells and those swede fondants are extracted from a baked swede with an apple corer. The flavours are intense and even simple ingredients (back to that swede) intensely pleasurable.
Along with the simple ingredients come simple explanations. Andrew is not in favour of mystifying menus and everything is clearly explained both on the menu and when you Cook with Chef. It’s fun, engaging and you come away with real new expertise. Even people who are not convinced when they arrive (Andrew mentions two men who’d clearly been given Cook with Chef by their wives) soon warm up. The two husbands got very excited by all that filleting and butchery, I understand.
There are 15 rooms at Fishmore and creature comforts include a vast bath in the bedroom surrounded with candles, a huge bed, a pebbled shower and massages on call. It’s just out of town and, besides the delights of Ludlow (an excellent place for Christmas shopping incidentally) there is the wonderful Stokesay Castle. Not really a castle at all, it’s the best fortified medieval manor (more timbers) in England with a great hall unchanged for 700 years and a fairy-tale tower with heart-stopping views of the Shropshire Hills.
This is, though, above all, a foodie trip and you won’t be disappointed with the quality of the cooking. Andrew Birch’s star is rising at Fishmore Hall. And maybe there’s another Ludlow Michelin star on the way….
A B&B room at Fishmore Hall starts at £150 per room per night. Tasting menu from £65pp. Cook and Shop with Chef £199 pp including room, breakfast, day with Andrew Birch, lunch, dinner, champagne and canapés. Dogs allowed, too, £30. For more information, visit www.fishmorehall.co.uk.