It looks like a typical English pub -- a crooked, half-timbered building with seven polished wooden tables, antique copper pots, and the obligatory roaring fire. But there's no warm ale on tap here at the Merchant House. Instead we savor parsley risotto with English asparagus and wild mushrooms, sautéed scallops in lentil-and-coriander sauce, and pan-fried veal with foie gras. It's this kind of earthy, fresh, and generously portioned food that has made British culinary legends of Merchant House chef Shaun Hill and his adopted home, the medieval town of Ludlow. No wonder the wait for a weekend dinner reservation is at least six months.
Today, in addition to its picturesque ruined castle, Ludlow -- about four hours northwest of London -- boasts three restaurants with Michelin stars: the Merchant House, Mr. Underhill's at Dinham Weir, and Hibiscus, which even got a second star in January. No English town except London has more Michelin eateries.
Why Ludlow? Foodies have been lured by the quality of local livestock and produce. Indeed, the Shropshire countryside is filled with orchards, cornfields, and dozens of small, independent dairies and sheep and cattle farms. Ludlow also owes its success to skyrocketing real estate prices in other parts of Britain. Chris and Judy Bradley, proprietors of the one-star Mr. Underhill's, already had a Michelin star at their restaurant in Sussex in England's pricey Southeast when, six years ago, they decided to move to Ludlow. "We wanted a place where it was affordable to expand into the hotel business," says Chris Brady.
As the word about Ludlow's restaurants spread, gourmet pilgrims poured into the town. They were also drawn by such foodie events as the Magnalonga that takes place each August. Sponsored by the local tourist board, it's a six-mile walk through the Shropshire countryside with five stops, each of which serves one part of a five-course meal. The annual Ludlow Marches Food & Drink Festival, held each September, offers an ale-and-sausage tour and lectures such as "From Montezuma to Willy Wonka: 3,000 Years of Chocolate." Last year, the three-day food fest attracted more than 15,000 tourists -- 5,000 more people than live in the town.
Hill's Merchant House is Ludlow's first and most famous restaurant. But Hibiscus is turning out some of the most innovative food. Chef Claude Bosi, a 32-year-old wunderkind, trained with master chefs Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard in Paris -- and with his mother, Yolanda Bosi, at a bistro she used to run in Lyons. On the menu the day we visited: lamb sweetbreads dusted with ginger in a pool of eucalyptus milk, roast Dover sole with young leeks, and pear-glazed cucumber puree, and for dessert, crème brûlée of Jerusalem artichokes, toasted oats, and caramel ice cream. The prix fixe lunch runs $46; dinner is $72.
It's a far cry from your typical English Sunday lunch. But that's why almost 450,000 visitors came to Ludlow last year. Food, at long last, has become a British tourist attraction.
By Jane Black