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A Cambridge Miscellany


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While Yvonne thinks great thoughts in Girton’s archives, I decided to visit some of my old haunts. Probably a mistake.

 

The Granta. This is a pub in an old Victorian house overlooking the mill pond on the Granta, hence the name. Duh. When I first went up it consisted of two very small bars but sometime during my second year they made one of the bars a toilet and added an extension cantilevered out over the pond. Constructed of blond wood it looked like a sauna. Never really my favourite place but it was tourist free and a short crawl from college. And the bats over Coe fen always lent a little excitement if there were any city boys in the party. I went there a lot.

 

Well, it’s still tourist free. In fact, the lunchtime I was there it was customer free with the exception of me. And no wonder. Realizing that the Swedish look doesn’t really tie in with Victorian gothic, someone has painted the wood dark brown and add rowing paraphernalia. It looks stupid. And the beer is poor. And the food is disgusting.

 

Nostaligie de la bou used to be more fun.

 

 

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The Free Press

 

This is more like it. I rarely went in my student days. At about a kilometer from college it seemed a long way for lazy buggers like me and the landlady was notorious for hating students, turning them out on a whim (and after walking all that way). But it’s a charming little pub with the ur-snug – more than three people and coordinated breathing is a necessity.

 

Very well kept beer, including a quaffable mild and great pub food. Game pie: A proper hot water crust filled with I’m not sure what though I suspect pig products outnumber game. Very tasty nonetheless. “Lancashire Salad”: black pudding, bacon, fried potatoes and a poached egg on greens. What a salad should be. Spicy parsnip soup: Truth in advertising. Grilled bacon, crème fraiche* and spring onion sandwich on ciabatta*.

 

When almost everywhere with food ambitions seems to strive to be a gastropub (see below), this is an exception. If you’re in the town, go.

 

*Ponces.

 

 

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The smell of chip fat in Mill Lane from the 'kitchen' in The Mill is one of the great Cambridge Constants (particularly memorable when parking in what was the Dept. of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics carpark on Sundays prior to lunch at the equally constant GradPad during the early 80s).... Unchanged and disgusting as far back as I can remember.

 

I haven't been to the Free Press in a few years, but it was always about as good as Cambridge had to offer I think. Dr.J, do I remember you being a fan of the Peking in Burleigh St.? It is is still there, and really quite good, had dinner there when visiting the parents sometime before Xmas.

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The Plough, Coton

 

A rather ordinary looking pub in a pleasant enough village a couple of miles west of Cambridge. The inside has been completely gutted and turned into another sauna. Not unpleasant but this is very much A Gastropub. Although there are a couple of small tables at the bar I can’t imagine sitting here over a couple of pints of an evening. Still, the locals’ loss is the tourists’ gain.

 

At 12:15 on a Sunday lunchtime this place was packed and for good reason. A nice looking list of tapas at reasonable prices £2 to £3 a time and a longish menu. A starter of scallops and crawfish may not win any prizes for originality but was well executed with excellent fish. Ditto haddock and chips. A sort of Mediterranean sea bass was a bit more exciting but just as good.

 

On the whole we thought that this place compared very favourably with the frequently recommended…

 

Three Horseshoes, Madingly

 

Another gastropub (with a real restaurant attached) but one that works better qua pub than The Plough with pubby settles, fireplaces and the like. As far as I can tell the same Italian menu is available in the restaurant and the bar (the tablecloths in the restaurant come for free). But although the ingredients were very good the preparations seemed too fussy and often not very successful (particularly in comparison with The Plough). We had a selection of what were called ‘altro’ – tapas-like nibbles. Nice stuffed sage leaves, arancini and chili roasted beans (which tasted like an Indian snack). Mains of roasted liver and lamb were marred by that fussiness. The lentils with the liver were fine but I have no idea what the cheesy chard or the salsa verde was doing with them. The lamb tasted of lamb and was properly pink but was better when that same salsa verde was scraped off. The presentation – all beiges and greys – was a disaster.

 

But a pleasant place to which I’d return for a casual lunch if I’d got sick of The Plough.

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The Peking

 

I may be misremembering, or simply have been unobservant, but neither Indian nor Chinese restaurants were common in the 70s and certainly not as ubiquitous as they are now, at least not outside the major metropolitan centers. If there were any around, I certainly never ate in them although I was just as interested in food then as I am now and did the rounds of the Good Food Guide rated restaurants I could afford (i.e., not Robert Carrier’s Hintlesham Hall). The most prominent ethnic restaurants in Cambridge at the time were Greek or Turkish – 50p moussaka with rice and chips at The Eros before a night in the pub; take away doner kebabs in vicious sauce after.

 

When my notorious ex-friend, the rude Don, introduced me to The Peking it was therefore a revelation*. Seaweed? Peking Duck? Tongue in chili oil? What is this shit? I remember it as excellent and a trip back a couple of years later confirmed that impression. I was nonetheless worried that meals at countless Chinese restaurants in London, New York and, erm, China might have blunted my enthusiasm but I needn’t have been. Although it’s changed hands (the cheery owner, in between showing us photographs of her neurosurgeon children, told us her family had owned it for 18 years) and is a bit run down this is still a fine restaurant serving much better than average Chinese food. The seaweed and Peking duck are as good as ever and the seafood dishes are particularly good. Pricey at around £12 per course but portions are big and six dishes were more than adequate for four of us. Well worth the money.

 

*At about the same time I was introduced to Indian restaurants in Oxford by a Leninist who subsequently went into advertising but that’s another story.

 

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I remember the very first Indian restaurant coming to the town just outside London where I grew up. I would say early 1970s. I was an immediate fan.

 

There was a Chinese restaurant in town long before that. I was also lucky because my father had business contacts in Singapore and Malaysia, and as a child I was occasionally hauled up to Chinatown when he entertained them. I was very young when I first experienced Lee Ho Fook and fell in love with the noodles.

 

(Well, I have nothing to say about Cambridge....)

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Midsummer House

 

The menu didn’t really grab us but the restaurant is the only one of any distinction (two Michelin stars) in Cambridge so we went. And I'm glad we did. It was an excellent meal (Yvonne wasn’t anything like as keen as I was) and, bugger me, molecular gastronomy in Cambridge????

 

Butternut squash soup, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms

Not molecular gastronomy but very good soup. Not as gloppy as pureed soups can be and with excellent flavour.

 

Cannelloni of Red Pepper, Jamaican Jelly

A thin cylinder of dried red pepper (I’ve not idea how this was achieved) on a stick filled with a rich (cheese??) cream and a little surprise of foie gras at the end. A little piquancy from the jelly. A touch of the Alineas here and great stuff.

 

Risotto of Parsley, Garlic Snail, Yeast Foam

More Alineas. A bright green risotto in a little pot and a single tender, flavourful snail resting on a small spoon. I don’t recall the yeast foam. Yvonne thought the risotto over-salty but I loved all of it.

 

Sauteed Scallop, Bay Leaf, Pigs Trotter

The bay leaf was wrapped around the scallop and at first I thought it somewhat overpowering but it grew on me. The pigs trotter came in the form of deep fried breaded marble sized balls and provided a nice fatty, crisp complement to the fine scallop.

 

Mersea Island Oysters, Blackcurrant and Guinness The only thing that didn’t work for me. The oyster was fine but overpowered by the blackcurrents (a few scattered around in the shell) and the Guinness

 

Sauteed Foie Gras, Preserved Apricots, Rocket

The preserved apricots were a bit like jellied fruit and didn’t add much but rocket and foie gras is a surprisingly good combination.

 

Roast Zander, Red Wine and Nettles

That’s pike-perch to you. Apparently introduced into the fens sometime in the last century as a game fish. A fine enough fish but the dish was nothing very exciting until you find the little chunks of fried smoked eel (bacon would have worked just as well) in the nettles which transform the dish.

 

Bourbon Smoked Pigeon, Iceberg Lettuce, Sweet Potato

A triumph. Two rather disgusting looking wedges of almost raw pigeon breast but, god did this taste good. Smoky, melt in the mouth and so delicious that I entirely overlooked the sweet potato (another of my many dislikes).

 

Artisanal Cheese

All British.

”Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Wider still, and wider, shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet!"

 

Camomile, Lemon and Ginger

Pear, Black Olive and Fennel

Coffee, Chocolate and Passion Fruit All rather blah.

 

I thought every course with the exception of the oyster (and puddings which don't count) was good bordering great (as mentioned above, Yvonne was much less impressed).

 

Another greenhouse overlooking the river. A lot more pleasant than it looks in the photographs and it must be a wonderful spot for lunch during May bumps. Discrete friendly service.

 

£80 (plus £65 for reasonably generous wine pairings) so a bit of a bargain too. Run don’t walk.

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