Whilst traipsing about the UK recently, we decided to explore Shropshire, an area quickly becoming known as a foodie haven. Once we’d pinned down the general area, we found ourselves being directed to the small town of Ludlow, in particular, Forelles Restaurant at the boutique hotel Fishmore Hall. Run by Chef Andrew Birch and Laura Penman, the owner of Fishmore Hall, the team has been working to put Ludlow on the map of gastronomic adventures.
Shropshire is one of those places you go to escape the city. Throw your Hunter wellies into the car, grab your dog, and shoot off to enjoy the fresh country air. It’s the simple but sophisticated life here. You’ll see Halston Heritage next to those Hunters and plenty of places to dine and relax.
And then there’s Ludlow, a quaint medieval town with lovely historical buildings and a growing reputation as a foodie destination. When we heard something about Fishmore Hall being saved from wild misbehaved school boys, we knew we had to find out more. The story is that Laura Penman bought the property around 10 years ago when it was an absolute wreck. Built in 1810, it was originally a private house before becoming a school and then a home for ‘naughty’ boys. After that, the building fell into disrepair and was mostly neglected until Laura snatched up the property with the intention of restoring it to its former glory whilst running it as a hotel.
You can tell that a lot of sweat and tears probably went into fixing up this country house hotel. It’s an intimate size with just 15 rooms, all of which are individually styled, and we found our room comfortable and spacious. (As a bonus, Fishmore Hall is dog-friendly and there’s tons of outdoor space for long walks and rollicking runs to stretch those legs!) We drowned ourselves in Molton Brown products whilst unwinding in our room but truth be told, our main goal during our stay wasn’t just to chillax but to fill our bellies with a delicious and decadent meal at Forelles.
And what better way to do that than with a tasting course prepared by up-and-coming Chef Andrew Birch? Prior to coming on board as Head Chef at Forelles, he was a Sous Chef at a 3AA Rosette and Michelin-starred restaurant in Hampshire and has been the recipient of several awards, including Welsh Chef of the Year in 2004 and Young Chef Apprentice of Europe in 2005.
Forelles is the heart of the hotel. With an innovative menu that focuses on local ingredients, the restaurant delivered a fine dining experience that did not disappoint! We indulged in the six-course tasting menu which kicked off with Scottish scallops, followed by a delectable asparagus soup with smoked eel. Never did I think I would let eel pass my lips but apparently all it takes is just the right preparation! Then there was Scottish salmon and Shropshire rose veal before moving onto a vanilla pannacotta, salted caramel fondant, and finally, artisan cheeses. We were stuffed to the brim but oh so satisfied!
Impressed with everything I had just tasted, I hunted down Chef Birch for a Q&A so I could find out more about him and what drives him in the kitchen.
Chef Andrew Birch joined Fishmore Hall in November 2014 with the hopes that he could help take an already great business to the next level. He’d spent a number of years learning from other culinary greats—Matt Tomkinson at Montagu Arms, Kenny Atkinson at House of Tides, Martin Burge at Whatley Manor, and Chris and James Tanner at Tanner’s Restaurant. Chef Birch says that all of these experiences have allowed him to create his own ever-growing style as he takes bits of inspiration and lessons learned and applies them to his own style of cooking.
Of all the culinary legends, the one who tops his list is David Everitt-Matthias, not only because he’s achieved culinary recognition over the last 25 years but also because he still cooks in his kitchen on a daily basis. You can see why Chef Birch looks up to him—Everitt-Matthias’s values are right in line with his and you get the impression that he would love nothing more than to be in the kitchen day in and day out, cooking up a storm.
The food at Forelles is inspired by high quality, seasonal ingredients, and the cuisine is modern European with perhaps a down-to-earth traditional touch. The kitchen team do their best to source most of their ingredients from within a 30-mile radius of the hotel, with the exception of seafood and fish since Ludlow is landlocked. The chef has known many of his suppliers for a very long time and has cultivated good working relationships with them. When he needs to bring on any new suppliers, it’s on a recommendation from fellow chefs.
Chef Birch’s cooking philosophy is to stay true to himself and consistently replicate the best food he can using those quality seasonal ingredients. Unsurprisingly, he finds this the best way to attract the right audience to the restaurant and his cooking. That’s why you won’t find anything cooked in a water bath on the menu (a culinary trend he’s not too fond of) or see him wielding tweezers to plate up dishes (another trend that leaves him scratching his head).
You can see it reflected in his food but Chef Birch likes to keep things grounded in the kitchen by being practical and respecting the ingredients and preparations. He believes that, although presentation is important, the quality of food should never be sacrificed, which is why he keeps his plating simple. His number one key signature dish is the pig head croquette with beetroot, apple, and smoked eel (there’s that eel again!).
Leading a team of 8 in the kitchen, Chef Birch makes an effort to keep the young chefs motivated by ensuring a solid work-life balance. After all, nothing is more discouraging than complete burnout because you’re expected to be “on” around the clock. All he asks in return is that his staff be nice, professional, hardworking, and honest. Now that he’s built a strong team that respects the kitchen and holds these core values, Chef Birch hopes to grow the reputation of the restaurant and eventually push them in the direction of accolades.
Forelles has been awarded 3AA Rosettes and featured in the Michelin guide but that’s not really the be-all and end-all for Chef Birch. Most chefs might practically trip over themselves in pursuit of Michelin star status and drool over the accolades, but for him, the main focus is on delivering a great foodie experience and waiting until the right time to put his name on the map. Until then, Chef Birch will continue to create menus that fill both the stomach and soul. And in between, he’ll be learning how to be a first-time dad. (Congratulations, Chef!)
Best meal you’ve had in the UK aside from yours? Ynyshir Hall
Best restaurant globally? Per Se in New York
One word to describe you as a leader? Fair
One word to describe your restaurant? Honest
Ludlow is one of the places you can go for a countryside escape whilst still being able to indulge the foodie side of you. It’s low-key and classy, you’re guaranteed a mouthwatering meal, and you and your pooch can take big gulping breaths of fresh air and leave your city worries behind. And honestly, what better way to have a gastronomic experience than to eat and just roll to bed at Fishmore?
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