A Frenchman and his English wife are flying the flag for tea and cake, writes Richard McComb
A perfect little slice of England
When Keira Knightley is in town, this is where she pops in for a pot of tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake.
She may be pencil-thin but it’s difficult to see how the Hollywood star, or anyone for that matter, could resist the temptations of one of De Grey’s delicious cakes, pastries or iced fancies.
This delightful tea room, surely one of the finest in the land, is situated on an elegant street in the heart of Ludlow. With its beams, tables for two and deep red carpets, it is as English as a mediaeval castle – there’s one up the road, in fact – except for the fact that the food is, err, made by a Frenchman.
De Grey’s has been run for the past decade by Tracy Turner and her husband Jean Bourdeau, who hails from the Massif Central and is massive on baking and just about everything else that goes with first-class hospitality. The dynamic combination – Tracy’s English sensibility allied to Jean’s Gallic flair – is a winning one and has won the couple a loyal fan-base in the Shropshire town and further afield.
Known for its charm, award-winning teas and its array of sweet and savoury pleasures, De Grey’s has become something of a haunt for visiting celebrities. As well as Ms Knightley, the immaculately turned-out waitresses, dressed in traditional black and white, have served tea and fancies to, among others, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, Stephen Fry, actor James McAvoy, 80s pop crooner Rick Astley and Arlene Phillips, formerly of Strictly Come Dancing.
Actress Vanessa Redgrave loved the place so much she decided to stay: De Grey’s also has nine superb bedrooms allowing guests to enjoy splendid bed-and-breakfast breaks.
It is the regulars, though, who make this place. Mrs Marshall, who is 93, pops in six days a week, making a beeline for her favourite table. Bob and Florence, who are in their 80s, come in for coffee most days and take lunch on Sundays. These loyalists are far from alone because De Grey’s is more than a cafe – it is part of people’s lives, a place of pilgrimage for tea and cake.
Tracy says: “We have a fabulous regular trade. I could not count how many customers I see at least twice a week. We have ladies who meet for lunch. People who used to come in as a two have made new friends here and now meet as a four. De Grey’s is a real meeting place.”
Actually, it is no mean feat making it into the restaurant because to get there, one has to navigate the shop at the front of the property, which faces on to Broad Street. The display here is a thing of wonder: glass cabinets festooned with cakes, pies, tarts, sponges, scones, chocolate twists, loaves, rolls, quiches, gooey pizzas, treat after treat after treat. Sitting on top of the counter, there might be a freshly-baked, and totally gorgeous, Shropshire apple, black treacle and cinnamon cake. Nearby, there might be a plate of sweet pineapple doughnuts and some gingerbread men who are just asking to have their heads bitten off.
Following a superhuman effort, I managed to drag myself through to the restaurant without stuffing my pockets with too many goodies and it was here I met Tracy. It’s always busy at De Grey’s but there was a heightened sense of bustle and excitement during my visit. Tracy, who is 37, and Jean, 32, have been together for 14 years and tied the knot just days after my visit. The day after the wedding, there was a christening party for their son, Louis. Jean, being Jean, insisted on taking charge of the weekend’s catering arrangements, including the spectacular cakes. It brings to mind the phrase about running to stand still. Tracy and Jean don’t run, though – they sprint, gracefully.
The couple manage De Grey’s on behalf of Sue Underhill and can be credited with carrying out a sympathetic, first-class refurbishment and expansion, developing the eating area upstairs and opening the luxury accommodation in an adjoining building that dates from 1585. The bedrooms opened three years ago and are beautifully appointed with handmade furniture. I spend the night in The Buttercross, which is charming and very comfortable with a large oak four-poster bed. I am rarely able to sleep in hotels but soon I am away with the fairies.
Overnight guests take breakfast in a reserved area on the first floor of De Grey’s, which is a winner of the Tea Guild’s Award of Excellence and is listed among the top places in the country to take afternoon tea. If Michelin gave stars for breakfast, this place would get one. As it is, De Grey’s is praised for its accommodation in the famous red guide and is awarded five stars by the AA and Enjoy England, the nation’s official tourist board.
Jean isn’t fazed by anything and took on the role of project manager for the conversion of the offices into luxury accommodation. “Jean excels at running a business even though his passion and his flair is for catering. He is switched on 20 hours a day,” says Tracy. See what I mean about sprinting?
Jean, from Clermont-Ferrand, attended a boarding school run by monks and went on to train at Michelin-star restaurants in the city and worked under three-star chef Marc Veyrat. Jean, in turn, has trained the four bakers who work under him at De Grey’s. In total, there are six chefs, including Jean, and four kitchen assistants. It is a very efficient business, with a great product, but that is the way it needs to be in 2009.
Just like everywhere else, there is no time for sentiment in Ludlow, the epicentre of the UK Slow Food movement. The faceless multi-nationals, the bane of market towns such as this, are on the march.
The de Lacy family, who built the original fortress at Ludlow Castle in the 11th century, used the area’s natural geography – the high ground and the rivers Teme and Corve – to repel Welsh marauders. It seems that 21st century traders in the town have a tougher fight on their hands against the might of Starbucks and its mass-market associates.
Independent traders such as Tracy and Jean are running an admirable rearguard action but one fears that commercial imperatives will win the day without some form of political intervention. It is a bleak scenario for Ludlow and towns of its ilk across the country.
Tracy visibly shudders at the thought of Ludlow being over-run by the chain stores that have dumbed down so many high streets. There is talk in Ludlow over a planned opening by the US-based sandwich bar group Subway, which now has more fast-food outlets in the UK than McDonald’s.
“The thought of it is horrific and I hope and pray our local council can hold them at bay,” says Tracy.
Such chains, with their huge buying power and capital assets, represent the biggest long-term threat to the likes of De Grey’s. “That is primarily what will get rid of places like us. Part of the reason we are here is because of the independent retailers. That is the attraction of the town,” adds Tracy.
Take away the small, privately-owned, locally-run butchers, bakers, delis and the like and why on earth would people bother coming to Ludlow? To have a steak and cheese “sub”?
Times are undoubtedly hard. Tracy says: “Everyone is trying very hard to keep their head above water. We are really lucky because we have loyal regular customers. This trade can be very hard but we are fine. We need people to keep coming.”