Shropshire Star

Food review: The Castle Hotel, Bishop's Castle, Shropshire

For many years British food languished in the rankings against the delights of the tables say of France, Italy and Spain.

Traditional – The Castle Hotel, Bishops Castle

And to be fair the majority of our restaurants deserved their fate. But it was not all their fault – because we in Britain were not really diners out like our European counterparts. Dining out was either in the upper echelons of the rich and famous in such London oases as Le Caprice, The Ivy, The Dorchester, Savoy or Claridges, or for the majority scampi and chips in the basket down the local pub or maybe a steak at the Berni Inn when you were felling flush.

We really didn’t like spending hard-earned cash on having someone else cook and serve our food for us. However, as living standards rose during the 70s, 80s and 90s and with more foreign travel available at reasonable cost, our tastes changed. Holidays abroad revealed just how enjoyable a meal out could be. And also how lacking we were on the quality front unless we had a pot of gold to spend.

That led to demand for more eateries and quality eateries but not at Michelin star prices. It also led to discoveries of how very, very good traditional British food could be if cooked well, with good service and in a pleasant setting.

Case in point, fish and chips – one of our great dishes when fish from our own waters is cooked with light as air batter and golden potatoes with fluffy insides. And how about steak and kidney pie with a proper suet pastry?

And our piece de resistance has to be a traditional Sunday lunch. Tender meat with ‘proper’ gravy, roast potatoes, and a nice selection of vegetables – not cooked until they are like mash but still firm. Don’t get me wrong I love all types of food, as my waistline clearly demonstrates, but let’s praise our own dishes for a change. and in particular: Long live Sunday lunch!

One of my favourite treats is to get in the car with the Archers omnibus on the radio on a Sunday morning and drive off to enjoy Shropshire’s beautiful countryside, ending up at a nice eaterie for a roast meal.

My last foray was to the historic market town of Bishop’s Castle and the castle of its name.

The small town was a ‘rotton’ borough back in the day. These corrupt parliamentary boroughs or constituencies had a very small electorate and were used by patrons to gain ‘unrepresentative influence’. Well there’s nothing rotton or corrupt about Bishop’s Castle today. It is a charming and delightful small town surrounded by the South Shropshire Hills and rolling countryside of the Welsh borders. And set in a prime spot overlooking the town is The Castle Hotel, built on the site of the original Bishop’s Castle by the then Bishop of Hereford in 1086 and even using some of its stone.

The hotel was owned at one stage by one of Shropshire’s more famous historic characters – Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India, founder of the British Empire in India.

And now on to today where it is run by a couple who have transformed The Castle into a warm and welcoming pub and hotel. There are three bars in which to sit and enjoy a drink or meal and a restaurant. Woodburners blaze in the cold weather, the decor is a mix of traditional and contemporary and you are made to feel so welcome. If you like real ale there’s a good selection of the amber nectar from Shropshire breweries including the Three Tuns which is just a few yards away down the hill!

Dogs are welcome, which is perfect if you have enjoyed a walk in the hills first, and there’s disabled access.

My Sunday treat involved one of my oldest and best friends Gill. We enjoy a catch up over a good meal and we were not disappointed with our food.

The Sunday lunch menu changes each week and usually has six or seven starters, a couple of roasts and several other mains including fish and chips. . . But we didn’t go for the fishy option although it looked very good when spied on another table.

To start Gill had tandoori chicken salad served with lemon mayonnaise (£6.25). She tackled several juicy chunks of spicy meat and really enjoyed the mayonnaise, a nice pairing. I had a rather unusual starter, a goats cheese and tomato cheesecake served with salad and Balsamic vinegar (£7.50). The cheesecake element had a texture somewhere between a mousse and terrine and was on top of a savoury biscuity base. Very different but enjoyable and the salad was indeed a salad not just a token piece of lettuce and half a tomato.

Beef was the choice for Gill and lamb for me. Roasts each cost £12.95. We each had three substantial, tender slices of meat. And each with gravy made from the appropriate meat juices! A Yorkshire pudding the size of a fist came with the beef and each plate also had roasties, swede and carrot mash and roast parsnips.

And then . . . a dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned on the top and another large dish filled with carrots, mangetout, red cabbage and broccoli. There were enough vegetables to feed four and it pained us both to have to abandon half of the dishes. I’m told there are plenty of farmers who can clear them!

Full but wanting a little of something sweet, we shared a lemon curd tart served with white chocolate ice cream (£6.95). Crisp pastry and plenty of smooth but slightly messy lemon curd. To be honest the curd could have come out of an expensive jar, but that doesn’t matter because it was sensational along with the ice cream.

And all the time we enjoyed this British institution we chatted and recalled some of the wilder and more unsual of our experiences in years gone by. The young couple sitting at the next table were very interested in some of our anecdotes and went very quiet at time – I don’t imagine they thought women of our ages could have got up to it all.

They should have listened to some of our other conversations in less public places . . .

The hotel itself says: “We don’t do Michelin at The Castle, but we certainly use many of the same local suppliers. We’re spoilt for them actually. What we aim to produce is modern, good pub food that is healthy, hearty, flavoursome and fresh. And great value of course.”

No disputing that.

As we left we promised to return in warm weather and sit in the garden on the terrace which has simply stunning views – and we really must.