I have compiled some lesser known yet compelling facts about our rarified spa towns in recent months.
I think they make for fascinating reading and would commend the findings to the local tourism bods.
Leamington Spa, for instance, has the highest concentration of street beggars per square foot of Regency promenade in the UK.
And here is a stunning new fact: Cheltenham has more tanning shops than any other spa town, albeit that it lags some way behind non-spa settlements such as Solihull.
Ever wondered why the residents of Cheltenham always look so healthy, so glowing, so burnished? Could it be to do with all those winter breaks in the West Indies? Not at all. The local population is addicted to tanning booths.
When I stopped in Cheltenham for lunch, I had time to kill, about an hour, so I thought I would take in the charming boutiques and antique shops you hear so much about. I headed to somewhere called the High Street, as it was near the restaurant, Purslane. I thought I had died and gone to Essex.
Every other shop in the High Street is an emporium for the browning of skin. The shops in between the tanning outlets are either nail bars or pound shops.
Unfortunately, I sought neither a full-body spray tan nor tiger print nails so I got quite bored, quite quickly.
The restaurant manager, Stephanie Ronssin, looked crestfallen in that way that the French look particularly crestfallen. (Ronssin is French.)
It turns out I had gone to the wrong bit of Cheltenham. I should take a stroll towards Montpellier.
That’s a long walk, I thought, to the south of France. Was Ronssin telling me to “do one?”
Silly me. I had been fooled by the accent. Stephanie did not mean the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon but rather the Cheltenham suburb of the same name. Which is the nice bit.
Fortunately for me Purslane is also very nice: terrific food, great service, good value and a warm front-of-house spirit.
It is at this point that I should make a disclosure: when I knew I was going to Cheltenham I wanted desperately to go to Le Champignon Sauvage. I struggle to think of anyone whose food I would rather eat than David Everitt-Matthias’. Cheltenham then is a lucky place. Not only does it have a chef of undisputed world class in DEM, but it’s got a younger one assured of national prominence in Gareth Fulford.
This is exciting because it means the first three restaurants reviewed on this blog are staffed by head chefs from God’s own kitchen, the West Midlands, or Staffordshire to be precise. Richard Turner of Turners in Birmingham was hatched in Lichfield and Ryan Swift, at Peel’s near Solihull, is from Tamworth. Mr T has a Michelin star and Fulford, if you care about these things, can’t be far off.
Bear in mind that Purslane has been open for less than a year but feels like it has been going hell for leather for a decade. And I mean that in a good way.
Fulford and Ronssin are joint directors and have created a restaurant with the sort of relaxed, friendly confidence you just don’t find in brash corporate hang-outs. The dining room is comfortably small and the tables are simply set, uncluttered, unclothed.
Everything, quite rightly, hinges on the food. Common purslane, of course, is derided as a weed but the cooking here is anything but weedy. The flavours are clear, defined and the produce is superb. Here’s a radical thing: Fulford liberates good produce and allows it to stage its own merry dance. The chef doesn’t twit about with it. He has that rare gift: he knows when to stop.
Seafood predominates and when I visit, on a Thursday, it showcases crab, sardines, haddock, cuttlefish, sea trout, mackerel, pollack, scallops and sole. Not bad for a small restaurant with about 25-30 covers.
There is a short “light meals” lunch menu, including dishes such as Cornish haddock, leeks, heritage potatoes and seaweed butter for a tenner. The three course à la carte is £30 and must represent the best £30 I have spent so far this year on dining.
Tender braised cuttlefish is served with a lovely heritage tomato salad and sea purslane. Vinaigrette, like an omelette, is as good an indicator of a chef’s ability as anything and Fulford’s is light and silky with the right tang of acidity to set off the fish and the tomatoes. In other good news, Fulford bakes some lovely bread, which makes for ideal plate mopping. The pungent soda bread and fennel bun are particularly good.
All the main courses are £16 (starters £8, desserts £6). The pollock, with morel tart, Hereford snails and wild garlic sauce sounds interesting but I’m a sole man, so sole it is – a sweet megrim that ticks all the boxes for taste and sustainability.
A great piece of white flesh, dressed in a bonnet of crispy potato strings, arrives atop sweetish, super-green monks’ beard, which is like samphire without the after taste of having drunk the Channel.
The menu description disingenuously describes the dish as having “shrimp butter.” This isn’t just butter flavoured with a couple of shrimps, like you come to expect in dullard restaurants. Rather this is a very decent amount of shrimps with some butter. It sums up the generous spirit of the cooking here.
The icing on the cake of this dish is the heritage potato gnocchi, which have a light, crunchy coat and a melting, smoky-tinged heart. I’d happily eat them on their own.
All the desserts sound hugely eatable, including a woodland strawberry parfait, a chocolate and hazelnut brownie with milk sorbet and some lovely homemade ice cream varieties.
How can you not order lemon meringue ice cream? Amazingly, I don’t and I haven’t stopped congratulating myself on picking the Wye Valley Champagne rhubarb, vanilla rice pudding and rhubarb ice cream. You know when things don’t always taste as good as they look? This does.
We may not do many things brilliantly in the country, but we will always have rhubarb. In Fulford’s hands, the blush stalks become simply sublime, batons delicately poached so as to leave just the lightest of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it crunch. The rice pudding is homely, soothing, not over vanilla-ed and the fruit ice cream is a peach, apart from the fact it is a rhubarb.
A fine double espresso with a thrown in chocolate truffle (a nice touch) ends the meal. I was driving and drank tap water. Restaurateurs hate that. They probably do here but they don’t show it.
The bill came to £35.50, including the bread but not the service. They’re grown up at Purslane and allow the customer to work out what he or she wants to pay for service rather than whacking on a consumer stealth tax. Is there nothing wrong with this place?
Top tip for Cheltenhamites – forget the tanning booths and spend your spare cash at this restaurant. You will glow with joy for days.
At the time of writing, Purslane is running a Taste on Tuesdays menu on the first Tuesday of every month: four à la carte courses for £32. Pinch me, please. Better still, take me to Purslane.
Purslane,16 Rodney Road, Cheltenham, GL50 1JJ
Tel: 01242 321639