Monday, 1 November 2010

A celebration of Oxford's finest independents.

I moved to Oxford from Devon five years and five weeks ago. 
This is by no means a comprehensive list of things I have experienced or enjoyed, it is more of a compilation of the places that have become mainstays in my way of life here. This post is not just aimed at students, or new residents, I'm still discovering this wonderful city myself and I encourage you to do the same. 

Vintage, kitsch and craft:

Darn it & Stitch:
A relatively new shop, filling the gap left behind by the demise of King's Fabrics, selling a small but perfectly formed selection of haberdashery items, beautiful fabrics, knitting patterns, buttons and the like. They also offer workshops in knitting, crochet and patchwork and sell ready made examples of the kind of things you can create there.

Address: Blue Boar St. (off St. Aldates) Web: Twitter: @Darnitandstitch

Another newbie, next to The Magdalen Arms on Iffley Road, the lovely people at Comma have a beautiful selection of vintage and kitsch homewares, pretty craft books, fantastic notepaper, wrapping paper postcards and hand printed cards all with fun or vintage style designs. Perfect shop for a gift or a little treat for yourself!

Address: 247 Iffley Road Web: Twitter: @commashop

Broad Canvas:
An established art supplies shop selling just about everything you could ever want as an amateur or semi-pro artist or craftsperson. The staff are incredibly helpful and knowledgable and are always happy to help if you cant find what you're looking for. The shop also has regular exhibitions of paintings upstairs.

Address: Broad St. Web:

Food, ingredients and lunches:

Alpha Bar:
Inside the Covered Market, like many of my food recommendations, this small salad bar serves a varied range of delicious and flavoursome salads to suit all diets as well as sandwiches and toasties. Vegetables are sourced from the wonderful Worton Organic Farm, all teas and coffees are fairtrade and they source their cheeses from The Oxford Cheese company. I recommend the marinated tofu and the carrot and seaweed salad.

Address: Avenue 3, The Covered Market

David John's:
A brilliant butchers, they sell a huge range of sausages, including gluten free and vegetarian varieties as well as a massive selection of pies, cold cuts and other delights. They also supply The Big Bang in Jericho, for all you sausage and mash fans.

Address: 93-95 The Covered Market

M. Feller, Son & Daughter:
A fine example of a butchers, specialising in local and organic meat and seasonal game. Suppliers to The Magdalen Arms and other fine food establishments. The service is always full of butcher banter and backed up with fine knowledge. Check out the displays over Christmas, although I wouldn't recommend this for the weak stomached or vegetarians among us.

Address: 54-55 The Covered Market Web:

East Oxford Farmers' Market
A great market, with a commitment to providing seasonal and local goods. The emphasis is on organic too, and with milk, veal, lamb, bacon, pork, bread, vegetables, cakes suitable for all diets and craft all sourced from within 30 miles of Oxford, you'd be mad not to do your weekly shop there. Prices are generally quite fair and there is also a wonderful cafe, serving seasonal eats and treats as well as tea and coffee. The market takes place every Saturday in a primary school behind Tesco. Sign up for the mailing list to find out what's going to be there each week.

Address: East Oxford Primary School (behind Tesco) Web:

Eating without chains:

I first experienced the sushi here last week and have been kicking myself since then that it's taken me so long to get there. The sashimi was fantastically fresh and the sushi looked and tasted marvellous. Service was speedy and polite and my dining companion and I especially liked that you got to choose your own cute sake cups. It's very small, and there can be queues, so get there early and be prepared to share a table with other diners. Sushi is served every Thursday and can be ordered as takeaway too.

Address: 15 Holywell St. Web:

I like to think of this place as my staple restaurant. The standard of food is reliable, reasonably priced and well cooked, the menu never changes and although I never have an amazing time there, I always have a good time. Serving burgers, pizza and the odd delicious special, this place is perfect for a swanky hangover meal with friends. Go there when you're feeling too lazy to cook and want some standard grub.

Address: 111 Walton St. Web:

Rusty Bicycle:
Formerly a run down, old man's drinking lair, since it's sensitive facelift this pub has really come into it's own. With the addition of traditional and tasty home-cooked food, homemade breads, marvellous well-kept ales and a friendly and warm atmosphere it's the perfect place for a lunchtime work session, using their reliable WIFI. Or just an evening glass of wine or two, or three...

Address: 28 Magdalen Road Twitter: @rustybicycle

The Magdalen Arms:
Firstly, let me admit to a bit of bias, as I do work as a chef here. Secondly, let me say that I was before my employment and still am, a regular customer here. Open just a year, The Magdalen Arms has already gotten much acclaim from the national press, not just for the food, but the friendly, 'unfussy' service and relaxed atmosphere too. The food is simple and flavourful, relying on seasonal, local and super-fresh ingredients, cooked sympathetically. The menu changes twice daily and always has something a little out of the ordinary. A place to go with friends, with parents, with work, for a drink and a snack, for dinner or lunch or just a cup of coffee and a slice of tart.

Address: 243 Iffley Road Phone: 01865 243159

Boozing off the beaten track:

The Fir Tree:
Great little boozer with extended weekend opening and fine roast dinners on Sundays. Run by the same people as the Port Mahon (which I have yet to go to in it's new incarnation) the atmosphere is lovely and although small, there are plenty of hidey holes for you and your friends, the outside has heaters and twinkly lights. Always a small but well kept selection of ales and just enough crazy locals to remind you that you're still in East Oxford. Many a brilliant night has been spent here.

Address: 163 Iffley Road Phone: 01865 245290 Web:

The Star:
Great music and polite service by dashing barpersons. Not a great selection of lagers or ales, but for students there are deals on shots and pints on certain days of the week, the garden (now shut until April 1st) is one to remember for the summer, being very large and not out on the road like most places in East Oxford. A bit of a hub for local, up and coming musical and creative lovvies.
Address: 21 Rectory Road Phone: 01865 248011 

The Perch:
Some would argue that this should be in the food section, but since I have had a better time there drinking rather than eating, I will put it here. A short cycle from the town centre takes you out into the countryside, and The Perch welcomes you with a wonderful fire and comfy armchairs. The staff are polite and knowledgable. I love sitting outside all year round, the garden, with its huge willow tree a shelter from sun and rain. Rather busy with Mums and tinies in the Summer, in the winter it's gloriously deserted.
Address: Binsey Lane (off Botley Road) Phone: 01865 728891 Web:

The Half Moon:
A fab Irish pub, with music nights on various nights of the week, it's not often you go to a pub where the bar staff call for silence as one of the punters sings an Irish ditty. Always full and lively, even on a Sunday evening, there is often a small band quietly playing folk for what seems like their own enjoyment, but adds to the friendly atmosphere no end. Although you'll most probably end up sharing a table with a stranger, they are almost definitely friendly. You don't need to be Irish to come here, just open minded, relaxed and willing to participate in the friendliness.

Address: 18 St. Clements Phone: 01865 247808 Web:

Feel free to give me suggestions of places not listed here, I may have already been and not rate them, but equally I may not have made it there yet!

Monday, 7 June 2010

New Beginnings 2: The Magdalen Arms

During the dark, dingy and sometimes desperately miserable times of Winter, my younger sister; a new resident of Oxford and my best friend Tat and I took to meeting up and eating out. As a rule we tried to go for somewhere that would be reasonably priced, tasty and preferably not a chain, as my fellow Oxfordians know, this can be quite a hard task.
One rather cold and grey Sunday lunchtime in November we decided to take a chance on a new and promising sounding pub, The Magdalen Arms. Later that week, we went again and sampled the dinner menu which was just as delicious and surprising as the Sunday menu. Before we knew it we were eating there several times a week, the menu changing everyday, to accommodate seasonal vegetables, game and fish. The board outside invited allotment owners to swap their produce for drinks. The food simply cooked and finished to reflect the quality of the produce itself. The friendly staff engaged us in witty banter and suddenly: we were home.
In early January, we popped in for a little snack, as a starter I believe I had the woodpidgeon breast, served beautifully rare, with a sweet onion puree and a marvellously salty and savoury duck scone. As I finished my rich, tender and moist ox-cheek-and-dumpling-main-course, I popped up to the bar to get a drink. Whilst it was being made, I showed Florence Fowler, the owner, a review I had read by a foodblogger I follow on Twitter, Dos Hermanos and after she had shown Tony Abarno and the other chefs she asked me about myself. I told her that I was passionate about good food, but I scooped salad for a living and that the learning curve had quickly turned into a flatline.

"Why don't you come and work for me?"

So I did. After a week of trial shifts I quit my salad scooping, gave my notice and became part of the front of house team. An advocate for the kitchen, it felt good to be so close to food that amazing. As Florence and I were sorting out the paperwork for my employment she asked me where I would most like to be as part of the Magdalen Arms team. I think she probably meant the bar or the floor. I misunderstood, and replied,

"The kitchen"

And so it was. I started off just one shift a week. On my first shift, I was introduced to a whole world of raw meat as Tony (mostly!) and I processed twenty rabbits, fifteen wood pigeons, ten chickens, broke a haunch of venison down into individual muscles and last but not least, made the game terrines. I worked incredibly slowly and carefully, asking endless questions, "Like this?" "Should I keep this bit?" "Cut here?" every question was met with patience or calm demonstrations. 
I can't imagine how frustrating my presence must have been for Tony and the other chefs and when, after a month in the kitchen Tony asked me if I would like to start in the kitchen full time, I was absolutely terrified. I felt like a hinderance rather than a help. My lack of training was so apparent, no amount of passion could counteract the fact that I had almost no idea what I was doing. 

"Forty hours a week babes"

I accepted. And the learning began. Intense, stressful, sleepless yet incredibly satisfying and rewarding learning. As I write this I have been working full time in the kitchen for two months. I'm pretty sure that I learn new and surprising things everyday. About food, people, business etcetera ad infinitum. I still have to ask questions and I still make mega fuck-ups, but as we welcome new staff into our kitchen I realise this isn't such a bad thing, if you don't ask, often you won't ever know and I definitely learn from my mistakes. I'm very glad I took a chance on this opportunity and I'm extremely thankful that Tony took a chance on me. I think I'm just about starting to make it worth his while!

To read a wide range of reviews look here 
Or just see for yourself and book a table at The Magdalen Arms, call 01865 243159

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

New beginnings; 1. The Covered Market, Oxford.

This post should probably written in about four separate sections. Since September and my last post, a lot has changed, for the better and it'd be very tempting to do a full blown brain-sick on the page. But I'll be a good little one and give you all the goss in chewable chunks. Here's the first part....

At the end of my last post, I hinted at a new career opportunity and promised to tell you more. So lets ree-ree-rewind.

Those of you who are familiar with Oxford will know The Covered Market, its packed little lanes, once almost entirely food and produce shops, now with clothing shops and other independent delights thrown into the mix. There are at least four different butchers, all specialising in different things. To name but two; David John with his fantastic range of not only meat sausages but gluten free and vegetarian offerings too. And M. Feller, Son and Daughter, with their eclectic staffing (The old guy who shaves pieces off the bacon and steak for a mid-morning snack and the ironically named 'Tiny' who must be about 6' 9") and local organic meats as well as their beautiful selection of game, which hanging, usually still feathered or furred outside the shop, proved amusing and at times difficult for the customers of my new employment at vegetarian/vegan salad haven 'The Alpha Bar'.

The Alpha Bar is a small part of the Pouget 'empire', also including Oxford Sauce, Oxford Cheese Company (also in The Covered Market) Woodstock Road Delicatessen and of course, The Vaults.
I was attracted to Alpha by the obvious positive environmental decisions that had obviously been taken by the owners. Wooden Cutlery, recycled napkins and biodegradable boxes, as well as a great reliance on local and organic suppliers. The vegetables that make up the infamous 'Roasted Veg' are from an organic farm near Cassington and all salads that are not produced on site are made in a small production kitchen off Cowley Road, by talented and passionate staff. The salads are reasonably priced and based on portion sizes, my favourite salad of marinated tofu, carrot and seaweed, cous-cous and roasted veg with a dollop of vegan green pesto sets me back a mere £4.50. Seasonal, vegan and downright delicious soups are available in the colder months and toasted ciabatta or wheat-free spelt slices filled with a combination of salads make a nice change from salty, greasy, generic paninis (sounds a bit like penis?) that you seem to find everywhere else in Oxford.

I worked as a salad scooper for four months, my passion and faith in food re-igniting after nearly two years in the dusty Bodleian library. I learnt how to work fast, under pressure, in minus temperatures, and as an assistant manager I also gleaned a whole lot of business nouse. I loved my quirky, fussy and sometimes socially awkward and often cute customers, and the food, but the feeling of repetition and standing still was starting to come over me. As the learning curve mountain calmed down into a small molehill my attention started drifting towards my new favourite eatery 'The Magdalen Arms' and following a post-ox-cheek-dinner conversation about reviewers, food blogging and Twitter with the owner, I was offered a trial shift as a waitress.......

Friday, 25 September 2009

What are we going to eat in Cornwall?

What are we going to eat in Cornwall?

So I found myself in Cornwall with a family of intolerants* intolerance, to be more specific: gluten, lactose and ‘The Wrong Type of Fibre' (no pips and seeds or skins). I'm used to cooking gluten free, but all of these combined just seemed like a nightmare.

'What are we going to eat?' I asked a friend.
'Dust' she replied. I sighed.

 The night before we left, I prepared myself the most wheat-y, raw-ish vegetable-y and dairy smothered ‘Last Supper’ I could.

Just in case.

Of course, I needn't have worried.

Over the first few days we took it in turns to cook from the selection of supermarket products purchased under the effects of extreme travelling based lethargy and the supplementary things brought from our homes; fruit and vegetables from the Hampshire Riverford Organic farm, some homemade jams, scrumped pears. Meals were, simple and tasty; sausages and mash, spanish omelette and baked potatoes, pleasing everyone eating them. Each evening meal sandwiched between my gluten and lactose free sweet treats; lemon drizzle cake, naughty peanut-butter cookies*, scones. Everything was fine! Panic over!

After a particularly hard slog on bikes up to the ancient dwellings of Carn Euny and it's fogou we were rewarded by some crumpet-like treats called bannocks. Stodgy and delicious, perfect after our battle with overgrown hedges, holy wells and soupy streams, slathered with homemade bramble jelly and I think, by the more gluttonous, clotted cream too!

Bedtime reading...
Struggling with an uncomfortable pillow/bed combo one night, I reached into the bookcase of fun for a nosey, finding mostly jigsaws with bits missing, sloppy literature and kids stories and one cookbook which kept me entertained for DAYS. I've got it on order now! OK, so I admit that all those simple recipes were comitted to memory years ago, but it's good to free up a bit of space for new things and a directory of basic recipes that have been thoroughly tested is a blessing. It also means I stand a good chance of being cooked things I like by other people too...

Penzance surprises and delights...
Towards the end of the stay, having finished a gluten free cream tea at The Sail Loft* on the beautiful St Michael's Mount, we ventured into Penzance for some supplies. Having been told Penzance was a 'dump' we weren't expecting much. But we were pleasantly surprised. We flitted between a well stocked whole food store boasting local vegetables and eggs (as well as homemade vegan and gluten free savouries) and a family owned grocery shop with adjoining butchers and fruiterers, continuing to the many delicatessens boasting local ciders and cheeses. We purchased a chunk of Old Smokey which turns out to tastes uncannily like smoked salmon. Weird. Anyway, all these shops were within a short walk of each other and although there was a high street where the 'usual suspects' had begun to take over, at least the main supermarket was a Co-op, with an admirable 'local' section. I pleaded with my companion,

'Why isn't Oxford like this?' 'Why can't WE have shops like this?' (foot stamps and fist shakes)

Of course, the answer is simple: in Oxford, as in so many towns and cities around the country, the 'usual suspects' HAVE taken over, raising rents so that small artisan producers have little or no chance of starting a business. Whether Penzance had managed to retain good community shops through sheer determination and good shopping habits, or merely that local produce IS the easiest and cheapest option due to the poor transportation route into Cornwall, I don't know, but I was inspired and envious all at once.

But there's still hope for just have to start small

There are people who provide a platform for the small food businesses in Oxford as well as promoting a sense of community, to name but one: the East Oxford Farmer's Market. It's a way into the food producer's market for people who are passionate about their craft but lack the financial backing or business experience. Having received the most gentle and polite kick-up-the-backside/invitation email from my talented friend and administrator of the market, I will hopefully take up a stall as soon as I can!

More on that and Oxford and my new (and VERY EXCITING!) job later...

*A mean joke really. Very, very tolerants would be more appropriate!
* I used Meridian crunchy peanut butter instead to avoid the icky/environmentally naughty palm oil found in most PB.

*The Sail Loft also boasted g/f cakes and soups as well as bread rolls priced the same as standard wheat rolls.