'The Midlands' isn't a well-defined area of the country. You could say it is bounded by Wales in the west, the peak District in the north, the Fens in the east, and the Cotswolds in the south. Or, if speaking of towns and cities, by Shrewsbury in the west, Stoke-on-Trent and Nottingham in the north, Peterborough in the east, and Worcester and Northampton in the south; with Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester in the middle. But no two people would exactly agree.
Nevertheless, there are several things that distinguish the Midlands. One is the accent, of course. Another is the kind of food Midlanders seem to like. Butchers shops selling meat by the ton can be found everywhere. People here clearly like a substantial high-protein diet! And they like their carbs too. The butchers sell plenty of meat pies and pasties. All at tempting prices. Here's a shopfront display that caught my eye in Bridgnorth:
On my very first evening in Shropshire, I went to Ironbridge (of which more in the next post) and couldn't help noticing this dedicated pie shop:
Eley's Pork Pies. It had the air of a local institution. A man strode past me as I stood by. He was fortyish, vigorous, and built like a tank. 'Stocky', 'heavyweight', 'strong', 'gorilla arms', 'absolutely typical of a Midlands Man' were words and phrases that quickly sprang to mind. I guessed at a steady and habitual intake of beer and meat pies since childhood. Hooked on both, but especially pies. I followed him in. Sure enough, he was asking the lady there for two small meat pies. They were in three sizes: Man-sized, Giant-sized, and Super Elephant-sized. I had marked him down for a Super Elephant-sized pie, so his buying just two dainty little pies - the kind a man like him would easily inhale by accident and not notice - was a surprise. Perhaps he simply wanted a late-afternoon casual pie fix, something to keep him going while he walked to one of the pubs down the road. Like you might scoff a KitKat or Mars Bar while strolling somewhere.
All this said, he clearly knew his business. I decided to follow his excellent example. I asked the lady for one of the Giant-sized pies (these weren't really their offcial names, you understand, just what I thought they ought to be called), remarking that it would do for two meals, tonight and tomorrow. She smiled.
Back at the caravan, I carefully examined what I had bought:
Now that's a proper pie, and no mistake.
Well-filled, but still plenty of that lovely tasty jelly. Pinker than the typical Melton Mowbray pork pie from the East Midlands. In the West they clearly liked something different. The pastry was flavoursome. But the meat filling was something really special. It was absolutely succulent - and more seasoned than I'd ever before come across. The Eleys Secret Pork Pie Recipe clearly specified an above-average use of salt and pepper! It was delicious. It immediately crossed my mind to visit that shop again. But I resisted. I was strong. I knew that the way to true obesity lay open before me, and I was determined not to slide down that slippery slope. But I quite understood why Midlands Man loved fare like this, and why it became a natural habit to drop into a pie shop. Besides, there were smiles and good cheer to be had in such places. In my own experience, Midlands people are certainly very friendly, and very willing to chat. Just watch the men: they tend to make good-humoured but cheeky remarks if they sense you will play along with that kind of banter! I always choose to play along. It's fun. I like to laugh. And besides, I don't want them to think I'm a stuck-up Southerner from the Home Counties.
It wasn't just pies on their own. Everywhere there were cafés and lunch outlets offering 'pie and mash'. And 'hot roast pork' in baps and baguettes - with all the fixings. I couldn't completely ignore these. I'm only human.
So, on my day out in Shrewsbury, I found a lunch place near the station called Castle Banquet, and came away with a bacon, mushroom and onion bap, which I scoffed very messily on a sunny seat in the nearby Castle grounds.
Messy it may have been, with the filling falling out all over the place, but it was nice! And then, next day in Ludlow, this:
That's a big buttered bap containing gobbets of hot roast pork, carved before my very eyes, with apple sauce and a little stuffing. You could have the crackling in the bun, or (as here) a decoration on the top. It was a shop called Vaughans, run by a husband and wife, and of course we got talking. It turned out that they knew my home village in Sussex, and had very nearly opened a snack shop there. What a small world! Perhaps because of that little connection, or because we got on so well, my bap was supremely well-filled. It was almost too much; and over the next fifteen minutes, while I sat on a low stone wall in front of some ancient almshouses by the church, with people passing by, I thought I might have to leave half of it. 'Half' became just 'a little' however, and then suddenly I had consumed it all. Greed and appetite had trumped common sense. I waddled away like a bloated hamster.
And that wasn't my only food intake at Ludlow! I still wanted something to drink. I found myself in front of a likely place, called Wildwood Kitchen. Ah, this must be the company that had taken over from the famous De Greys Café. I'd always wanted to lunch at De Grey's. When I finally visited Ludlow on my own in 2014, with the notion of treating myself to an old-fashioned afternoon tea in elegant surroundings, I found that De Greys had died only weeks before. After decades and decades of offering upmarket refreshments to discerning customers, locals and visitors alike. I was so disappointed. It had occupied a timber-framed building, and must have started up during the 1920s. Local enquiry established that it had been excellent right up to its last day, and was now missed dreadfully. Its pricing policies hadn't moved with the times, though. The owners had refused to charge enough to maintain profits. So it had become a ridiculously cheap place to enjoy tea and cake and other specialities, with waitress service thrown in. This couldn't be sustained. Straightforward economics had closed it down. But now this new outfit, Wildwood Kitchens, had taken over. Hmm. From the outside, it looked much the same, although the 'De Greys' signage, so much a feature of local postcards, had all gone. In 2014, one could still see this:
In 2016, this. It really wasn't much different:
There were two distinct parts to the premises. Out front, a space that in the De Greys days had looked like a very posh cake shop, all chrome counters and marble, with a black-and-white motif. Further in, somewhere you could sit down. There were still cakes on sale. But now also some beautifully-presented salads:
Not for pie-chomping Midland Man, this! Replete from my hot roast pork bap, I wanted only coffee - an Americano, black, no sugar. But I also chose a lemon tart for a small dessert. A pleasant girl led me through to the rear.
The Café part was long and narrow, but well-lit from side windows. Right at the back was a plush area with comfortable seating (where I was put). Beyond that, a paved rear garden if you wanted sunshine and a breeze. Surely all this was original De Greys? I asked one of the waitresses. Yes, Wildwood had kept most things unchanged. A sound move, I thought. This kind of ambience was exactly what the customers would like. It was pleasant, relaxing, traditional. My coffee and tart came. They were excellent.
Wildwood's prices weren't too bad. Considering the surroundings, the service, and the quality of the food and refreshments, I was expecting to pay through the nose. But no.
In fact I wished I'd known how it would be. I would then have lunched properly there, and forsworn any hot roast pork baps.
The place was clearly very popular, and was filling up fast. To my left, a young couple with a baby were tucking into salads. The baby was very well-behaved. I learned from the Italian mother that he was just seven months old. They lived in Cardiff. To my right, two young women were tucking into mussels and linguine. They commiserated with me about making the wrong lunchtime decision. But of course, I could come back on a future holiday, and really I was in no way dissatisfied with my takeaway bap, simply as something tasty to quell my hunger with. But I'd have preferred their kind of lunch! With a glass of wine.
I used their loo while there. This had an unusual mirror in it, allowing you to see the top, back and sides of your head:
Clearly an art-deco survival from the early De Greys era! Like me.
This was a Saturday, and Ludlow had a lively street market going on, with stalls even in the side-streets. There were an unusual number of food shops close to the market square. All kinds of yummy goodies, like cheese, in those!
I'd noticed the same thing in Shrewsbury: lots of upmarket food and delicatessen shops. Similarly in Leicester, which I visited back in June. The Midlands was, one way or another, a foodie paradise. So if you want to lose weight, do not go there.