20 June 2003 - Oxford
What an odd thing to write about, I'm sure you're thinking. Surely there's not that much difference between food in Oxford and food in the rest of England. And English food has a deserved reputation for being mediocre.
However, I spent three years in Oxford, and I considered it home for time I was there. And a big part of my life is food, so it shouldn't be surprising that some of my most vivid memories should be connected with food.
It is a testament that although I can easily point to you several decent eating places in Oxford, I find it almost impossible to do the same in London (I can think of the budget Japanese shop near Leicester Square, but that's all that really comes to mind).
My first port of call when the bus came to a stop was Harvey's, the sandwich shop. I immediately stopped by for a scrumptious steak sandwich. In my years as an undergraduate I consumed countless numbers of these, always in half a loaf of ciabatta, always without tomato slices. It was a favourite stop for me because it was halfway between the Maths Institute and my college, and I could have a quick lunch while walking to one place or another. It was also conveniently near the cinema, so I could check out what was showing there.
The sandwiches from there are very, very good because they are generous and they give you exactly what you want: mustard, mayonnaise, brown sauce, cucumber, lettuce and 8oz of steak in half a loaf of ciabatta. In the nine years between the time I left University and now, they have not scrimped on any of the ingredients and their price has gone up a paltry 60p at the most.
There are other sandwich shops in the Covered Market, but none of them match the economy and taste of Harvey's.
Another favourite shop of mine is George & Davis. It should be world-famous, by right, if sales were based on quality alone, there should be a chain of G&D's stretching from John O' Groats to Land's End. People should be familiar with the G&D cows, not Ben & Jerry's, and the favoured flavours of the land would be Dime Bar Crunch and Chaos.
Instead, there are only two outlets in Oxford. Infuriatingly, the second shop opened five or six years after I left college. It's not a chain, really, because one called George & Davis, the other George & Danvey's, but the queues can be as long as ever, and the quality is still the same. Well, except that the Danvey branch seems to have fewer flavours on offer, but that could just be my imagination!
Why is it so good? First, the ice cream is good. No, I take that back, it's great. It's made in the basement and you can petition your own flavours (enough names on a petition sheet means a flavour gets made). The ice cream is solid, full of proper milk (not air) and it's difficult to be completely satisfied with just one scoop.
Secondly, the shops have got a fantastic atmosphere. It's full of students, so everyone's relaxed and having fun. There's a Question of the Day which wins you a free scoop of ice cream if you're the first to get it right (The question when I was recently there: "Which 1960 Billy Wilder film won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Script?"). You have your choice of free newspapers by the side, which I used to peruse in between bouts with tutorial questions.
Thirdly, the location's great. The original G&D's is just across the road from the Mathematical Institute which made it a comfortable place to hang out. It also faced Somerville College, the formerly all-girls college, which wasn't such a bad place to be.
The new G&D's sits across from Christ Church College, so you can now eat your Rum n' Raisin while in the shadow of Tom Tower (although why anyone would look forward to that, I don't know).
The other thing you should do when you're in Oxford is to go picnicking. You can either loll about in the sunshine by the river or you can loll about in the sunshine on the river. You can stock up on things like bread, cheese, and drinks from the local Sainsbury's or Mark's and Spencer's, but the authentic way to do it is to go to the Covered Market. It's a great place to just wander about - two of my favourite shops in there are Ben's Cookies and the cheese shop where I can buy Oxford Blue Cheese. I don't normally like blue cheese, but this one is creamy enough to make me forgive the strong taste. Ben and Claudi know this, so when I stayed with them, they almost invariably have a little stocked up in the fridge. Actually, the last time I was there, there was quite a bit, and I brought back a whole lump to London. My brother doesn't eat blue cheese, so there I was, wolfing it down, while he sat beside me with an awkward look on his face.
It's probably a lot easer to picnic on terra firma than it is in a boat, but if you are going to do it over water, make sure that at least one of you knows how to punt. It looks easy, but there is a knack to it that needs to be learnt. You'll find out before long that it's far easier to go around in circles that it is to go in a straight line. It's been more than ten years since I've done this, and before I was just getting the hang of it. I obviously have forgotten a lot in the time in-between.
Labels: big trip
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