Monday, 26 July 2010

A quintessential weekend

Leaving London for Oxford is proving to be a huge learning curve. On Saturday morning I decided to cycle into town to do our food shopping at the Covered Market. I left the house on my bike and peddled into town as fast as my weak, feeble London legs could peddle. 'How delightful' I mused to myself, and I was halfway to feeling as though I had landed in the middle of a Miss Marple when I was met with a plague of tourists. Not so idyllic. The town was absolutely buzzing with tourists. Everywhere. Now, coming from London I am, of course, used to irritating tourists. But they are easily avoided in London - there is less space in Oxford so we are confined to walk the same streets as the grockles. And I have discovered something, my inner-Londoner has not withered away, she bursts forth as I huff and mutter and barge people out of my way.

Once I had fought my way into the Covered Market I felt that things could only get better. All the fresh fruit and veg, the amazing cheese counter, butchers and delicious cookie shop enticed me in to the relative calm. But I ran into a bit of difficulty. You see, as much as it pains me to admit this - I had absolutely no idea where to start. How much is 100 grams? How do these women around me know what to do? I felt like a complete fraud as I walked around pathetically wondering how much of everything to ask for. And then I realised, I have grown up lacking the skills that were second nature to my grandmother and mother. I am used to going to a supermarket where everything is ready weighed and packaged with a nice price tag stamped onto it. Market shopping is a whole new world.

I rallied myself and dived in. I started with cheese. I bought a wonderful local cheese called Oxford Isis which is absolutely heavenly and very smelly indeed. So far so good - I then bought some strawberries and some delicious figs. It was when I went to the fish counter that all went pear-shaped. I have a weakness for Scallops - which are very expensive but the label had an alright price for 100g so I thought I would treat Mr Bell and myself to a yummy starter. I boldly asked for 100g and was horrified when two scallops were placed in a sorry little bag and handed to me. Mortified, I handed over my cash and fled the scene. TWO SCALLOPS?! I could have snorted them up - so I have learnt that 100g is not very much at all. And I have also learnt that I am not one of the fortunate few who can afford to buy Scallops.

I then gave the butchers a go but feeling as if the word 'novice' was stamped across my forehead I went for the easiest thing to order - four sausages. And then I scuttled away with my hard-won goodies to find my bike amidst a sea of tourists.

Aside from my disastrous first attempt at ordering food by the weight; pootling about the side streets around the college buildings was idyllic in the summer sunshine. I made time to stop for yet another scone at the Vaults & Garden cafe which is my favourite cafe in Oxford. And which is where a couple of Saturday's ago I had the most delicious breakfast of tea and toast (picture above, forgive the poor quality - I took it with my phone). Is there any breakfast more satisfying than simple homemade bread, toasted and slathered with butter and homemade strawberry jam? And for 60p? Heaven. I am going to become a very regular sight in the Vaults cafe as they serve fab tea and I can burrow in and read my book underneath the 13th century vaulted ceiling.

Yesterday I went home to Sussex for our annual family get together at Horn Fair in Ebernoe. I wrote about it in a bit more detail last year here. Four generations of our family were present as it was my six month old niece's first fair - I have been going since I was a baby and I still don't know the rules for Cricket! Perhaps my niece will grasp them more quickly than me! It all seems very slow and is interspersed with a tea break, a lunch break and another tea break. Meanwhile spectators are languishing around with their own thermos flasks and picnics - not really my thing I must say. Don't get me wrong I love a picnic - but not when balls are flying about. But it is somehow wry and a bit subversive of my family to repeatedly sit through this every single year - as only one of my mother's cousin's is into cricket (in a big way) the rest of us couldn't give two figs. But we always clap heartedly when it is required.

Anyway, I am off to battle with Jane Eyre. All your comments from my last post have made me even more determined to conquer the nineteenth century. Wish me luck - I am going in armed with a cup of tea and, oddly, some strawberry jelly.


  1. You may have had to elbow my husband out of the way in Oxford yesterday, though I expect he was walking purposefully, not gawping, as he wasn't there as a tourist, just playing cricket (yes, that game again) for his college old boys' team.
    I do sympathise with you over your shopping exploits - supermarkets don't train us for the world beyond their walls!

  2. I totally understand - shopping at the covered market still scares me slightly! The grocers are usually lovely, though; I ask for a handful or two, and they always show me the quantity in case I want to add/remove some. With meat, a handy guide is that a portion is around 125g. Depending on how greedy you are, obviously! :)

  3. Oh dear... I think that for food the open market is better than the covered one. I like the covered market for the funny little hat shop - I have never bought anything in there but I have tried on quite a lot!

  4. Sounds as though you missed a lot not going to proper food shops when you lived in London. Fantastic fresh fish from Steve Hatt on Essex Rd , cheese from La Fromagerie, meat from any good butcher. Borough Market? Oxford's little covered market (apart from the ghastly dead animals hanging up outside one of the butchers) is easy peasy.
    As for the tourists - prob best never to go beyond Martyrs Memorial. A lot of Oxford is now a theme park.

  5. You're adorable. Good to hear you're out on the bike, though, and reading Jane Eyre. I am squirming with glee at the thought of you sighing your way through the oh so densely detailed and melodramatic pages!
    I have no idea when it comes to market food. I came a cropper at the Italian market in Sevenoaks the other weekend - it said nougat, £2.99 for 100g. Fair enough, I thought. So I picked a slim-ish slice and then he weighed it and said '£6'. I did the whole HOW much?! popping eyes face and then was too embarrassed not to buy it, so I had to spend £6 on bloody nougat. It was nice but not THAT nice. Lesson learned. Shame about your two scallops - scallops are best free, at V&A Private Views. Shame we won't be going to those anymore! ;)

  6. Naomi, we are all novices and I only prey there is hope for us yet!

    Always such a delight to read your blog, thank you for sharing.

  7. Trust me, it's going to get a whole lot worse in August!!! Generally, we calm down after the August bank holiday :) Also, never enter the Covered Market when it's raining during the tourist season, you will not be able to move! For more affordable (& exotic)fresh grub suggest you discover the Cowley Road - out of the city over Magdalen Bridge & second exit on the left from the Plain roundabout (careful if you're new to cycling in Oxford)Excellent Farmers Market every Saturday morning in the playground of the school behind the Tesco Metro.

  8. Bless you! See, being a vegetarian is very handy sometimes... you can't go far wrong with 'two peppers please'. Although I did once stand by the veggie stand in the Covered Market for a few minutes, trying to remember the word 'spear' in relation to broccoli... The veg place in the Covered Market is very good - I've never been brave enough to try and buy cheese there.

    And I have to come here to learn - I had no idea about the Farmers' Market behind Tesco! Will have to check it out... the one in Gloucester Green is nice by so expensive.

    Oh, and tourists... argh. Tell me about it. Especially when you have to walk down St. Aldate's to get home. Nightmare.

  9. Grockles! Is that what we are? (or what I hope to be someday?) I have to admit it sounds nice from this perspective...and definitely 19th-century. :)

  10. Such a delightful post! Never fear, you'll get the hang of things and will soon be ordering fare like an expert. Using your hands goes a long way too such as 'Could you cut me a piece about this big please'. We'll also ask for ten slices of ham rather than by the weight, that way we only get what we need.

    I love watching people play cricket in Green Park when I've been there...I have absolutely no idea what it's about!

  11. The one thing leicester does have is a market and you soon get the hang of it. Also - if it helps - 100g is about 4oz which is about 2 eggs! Ask what pounds in money will get you, that makes it a lot easier.

    Oxford does sound wonderful though, and if you ever work out cricket please explain it!