There are few links remaining between the 2020 incarnation of Ludlow and its 2000 predecessor.
The small-but-perfectly-formed market town went into the Millennium with three Michelin-starred restaurants, more than any other UK town or city outside London. There was a Michelin Bib Gourmand too, for good measure.
Over time, the crown slipped, losing its lustre as Ludlow was overtaken by Bray-on-Thames and then, to everyone’s surprise, Birmingham – the city that was once a culinary wasteland.
The big names left Ludlow, moving onto other things, retiring to the countryside or opening restaurants elsewhere.
The memories remained, though the plaudits were received elsewhere. Ludlow, however, was never just about great restaurants – though there were plenty of those. It was also about a culture, where people bought bread from the town’s three exceptional bakeries, meat from four great butchers and fruit and veg from greengrocers, rather than just the supermarket. It was a town steeped in tradition and supportive of farmer’s markets and artisan producers.
Twenty years feels like forever in the world of food and many who enjoyed that golden era are now gone. Some, however, continue to thrive.
First among them is Wayne Smith, the chef patron of Mortimers, in Corve Street. The restaurant was formerly home to Claude and Claire Bosi, who achieved two Michelin stars for Hibiscus, followed by Will Holland, who achieved a single star for La Becasse.
Smith cooked with Bosi, at Overton Grange, and remains friends with the brilliant Frenchman. He’s been an unsung hero of Ludlow for too long; receiving insufficient credit while keeping the town’s premier restaurant afloat.
At Mortimers, it’s all about the ingredients – and Smith is blessed to work with some of the best in the world. Exceptional meat, game, fruit and vegetables are all available locally while his first-rate contacts with superlative producers means he has the pick of the crop week-in and week-out.
Though Mortimers is located in landlocked Shropshire, Smith has ready access to day boat fish from North and South.
From producers bringing abundant crops to the back door to daily phone calls with trusted suppliers, Mortimers revolves around sourcing the finest ingredients.
Wayne’s 20-year history in Ludlow means he’s better connected with local produce than any other cook and has the best on offer. He looks forward to the changing seasons, to local asparagus and lamb in spring, ripe soft fruit in summer, game and vegetables in autumn and more besides. His constantly changing menus showcase the best of what’s available.
Though Smith hails from the North of England, Ludlow has become his home. He has great relationships with customers and with other chefs.
That ethos has helped Smith to rise to the forefront of the town’s gastronomic scene. And with his qualities and skill, he’s rapidly helping Ludlow to rebuild the reputation during its golden era of Michelin.
For the uninitiated who didn’t dine at Hibiscus, La Becasse or at Mortimers, it’s worth reflecting on the beauty of 17 Corve Street. A beautiful stone building with age-old oak panelling, it’s a place where time stands still. Elegantly furnished and luxuriously appointed, there’s ample space between tables and staff go out of their way to make sure it’s Covid-secure. There are masks for those waiting tables, hand sanitisers for guests as they arrive, a thorough test-and-trace system and all reasonable mitigations to make sure guests are able to relax while avoiding risk of infection. Not all Shropshire venues are as thorough, though they should be.
I met a friend for lunch and we were both dazzled by Smith’s breathless skills and ability to excite. Hours blurred as pyrotechnic courses arrived, showing both the best of the season’s ingredients and the high-level techniques of a chef who Shropshire can admire.
We started with a trio of snacks; a small, wafer-thin cone filled with a luxuriant and butter duck liver parfait and a fabulous melted cheese tart with pastry so flaky and rich that it was a wonder it held together.
The highlight was a small fish finger, Smith’s take on a fish cake, in a perfectly golden crumb. Dots of tartare sauce completed a showy exhibition.
The bread was good. Served with three different types of butter – the pick being a black olive blend – there were three home-baked varieties. The hard work of the kitchen did not go unnoticed.
My friend started with a ham hock dish, served with piccalilli and rocket. Classic flavours comingled on a plate that was as pretty as a picture. The ham was well seasoned and beautifully tender while the acidity of the piccalilli was superbly judged.
My Isle of Wight tomato dish featured a series of different varieties with a deliciously fragrant and sweet consommé with aromatic basil and an indulgent burrata.
There’s a lot to be said about working with the classics and Smith’s use of great ingredients, respectfully treated, was exemplary.
A scallop course was served with apple and hazelnut, again making the most of the seasons. The sweet/salty scallop was lightly cooked and the hazelnut scorched to activate the oils within while also adding a slightly bitter flavour. The apple cut through the dish and adding another hint of sweet-sharp. Delicious.
Our mains were first class. My friend and I both ordered a celebration of pork, featuring a small piece of tenderloin served with savoy cabbage and roast shallots. An intense jus was sticky and deeply rich in flavour while a small black pudding bonbon and lovingly rendered piece of pork belly were exquisite. Top marks.
Desserts concluded a pleasant afternoon, with my friend eating a signature Smith dish: his chocolate cheesecake with hazelnut and caramel ice cream. My cherry bakewell was warm, light and buttery while the Disaronno ice cream was wonderfully intoxicating.
Smith runs Ludlow’s best restaurant and has probably been taken for granted for too long. He continues to aim high while others are happy to cater to the middle market. He’s the best we have and we should celebrate his skills.
Three courses, with bread and pre-dinner snacks: £55
Sea Trout, Crab Bon Bon, Cucumber, Creme Fraiche
Scallop, Hand Dived, Ratatouille, Gazpacho
Duck, Pressing, Pastrami, Celeriac
Rabbit, Carrot, Coriander, Cep
Beef, Hereford, Baby Leek, Roast Shallots
Grouse, Golden Turnip, Blackberry, Fondant
Venison, Mortimers Forest, Chicory, Sweet Potato
Halibut, Broad Bean & Crayfish Ragout
Chocolate, Marquise, Hazelnut Brittle, Caramel Ice Cream
Strawberry, Panna Cotta, Sorbet, Meringue
Lemon, Parfait, Curd, Raspberry Sorbet
Cheese, Selection of English, Grape Chutney, Biscuits
17 Corve Street