A Food Lover’s Weekend in… Oxford
Arrival and breakfast
Oxford is an easy one-hour train ride from London Paddington – a well-trodden route for Londoners ‘weekending’ in smug fashion in the Cotswolds. Arrive with the sunrise and the heartiest of breakfasts await. Oxonians can now enjoy fika (Swedish for coffee and cake) at KuPP, the Scandi equivalent of Comptoir Libonais, which is part of the city’s newly renovated Westgate complex. Offering things smoked and by the smörgåsbord, its day-starters of flat-iron steak with rosti and egg, cardamom pancakes, or a couple of Knäcke crispbreads are super Swede.
George Street Social’s bottomless brunch keeps groggy students happy; from its breakfast menu, swap out smashed avo for shakshouka and harissa-spiked eggs. With some of the finest minds in England to kickstart, coffee is a serious affair here. Stylish in spartan fashion (the only hit of colour comes from a few ferns clinging to a grille), Society Café is an independent micro-chain where all the buzzword brews and hot chocolate (made from melted chunks) are served.
GÄF café’s menu waffles on about ‘flower sprouts’ and ‘walnut milk’ like a teen who’s just discovered Ginsberg; however, its excellent small plates give vegetarians a proper look in, with gin-and-tonic-sloshed onions and apples, and pumpkin textures with egg and dill.
Turl Street Kitchen is altogether more straightforward, and family-welcoming too. Their lunch menu delights, from the tot of Fino en Rama sherry and freshly baked bread that gets you going, to polishing off the last sliver of chutney-smeared Oxford blue. If you happen to be visiting 11 friends or more, get them involved in one of Turl’s four feast menus; of its oxtail soup, rarebit and sirloin, the beef is the one we’d jab our finger at.
Thaikhun is an eminently serviceable lunch spot on George Street (we enjoy plonking ourselves down in its bisected bathtubs), but Bristolian Indian joint Thali, just down the road, has a more authoritative air, filling their tiffins (literally, if you’re on the move) with niche Goan curries, mango-glazed, chargrilled paneer and sticky galub jamun. They mix up a mean Arrack sour too…
To finish, a stop at G & D’s (George and Davis) ice-cream café – this stiff-upper-lip version of Ben & Jerry have a trio of caffs in Oxford (sister branch George and Delilah is an erstwhile gig venue), but we welcome the day they pick up a London plot. Flavours range from the vanilla to the wild: a scoop of port and Stilton, anyone? And, in case one forgets where thou art, the white-chocolate and raspberry flavour is dubbed Hamlet. It ends on a more positive note than the play…
Earlier this year, No. 1 Ship Street sailed into The News Café’s old port. Its façade is glaringly violet, but within awaits a sultry ground-floor eatery serving elegant dishes of veal shin, parmesan croquettes and aged steak. Upstairs is a colourful cocktail bar for drinking yourself into a purple haze.
Oli’s Thai inspires the same outpouring of love from Oxonians that Som Saa does from Londoners; Laddawan Thurston’s breathtakingly cheap garlicky chicken and lemongrass-glazed crackling is the stuff of local legend – but this means bums on seats, and not yours unless you booked when you were a child. So, a hearty ¡Olé! for Arbequina, Thurston’s Spanish offshoot, whose caramelly and comforting tortilla and ‘nduja and honey on toast – and penchant for taking bookings – have moved some diners to tears. Happy tears…
The Magdalen Arms pub, on Iffley Road, is as cool and refreshing as its crab-apple and prosecco fizz. You’re guaranteed to get misty-eyed over its menu: the golden crust on its steak and ale pie curls wantonly over the dish; slow-cooked lamb is served in slabs; and its nursery puddings are packed with garden picks – rhubarb, greengage, pear and damson – before being doused in custard.
Sometimes, those who wander are a bit tipsy… The CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien quotes splashed over the Eagle & Child’s blackboards and beams may seem gauche, but there’s still a sprinkle of the fantasy their legendary Oxford group The Inklings writ large here. The Bear Inn is another, established in the 13th century; it’s covered in the clipped ties of students through the ages who’d sacrifice theirs for a pint. Bang up-to-date with foosball and the craftiest of drinks is Brooklyn-y Big Society on Cowley Road.
More modern and magnanimous is Tap Social Movement – housed on an industrial estate to the west of the city. The story goes: a criminal barrister and criminologist walked into a craft-beer-bar manager and decided to start a brewery for social justice. Badaboom. Alongside creating stonking nights with their own brews and collaborations with local bands and gourmands (Chaat Indian Street Food, Native Feasts), they teach prisoners how to craft their own and offer free legal advice and training.
Oxford city is edifying enough to fill a weekend (although the shrunken heads of the Pitt Rivers Museum may ward off your appetite…). However, to truly get your teeth into its best edibles, you need to hire a car and hit the ‘shire.
Drive 30 minutes north and Blenheim Palace rears up in splendid Georgian style; lovely it is, but skip its slightly OTT Orangery to sip and nibble in the humbler, fresher Woodstock Coffee close by. Its Grecian owner serves a thick, dark brew that goes down like a rugby tackle to the face, a deal sweetened with trays of sticky and sugar-dusted cakes. To eat one – or possibly two – of every animal in the surrounding farmland, waddle down the road to The Woodstock Arms for their Jacobs full English. The meat feast was oft nominated to win back Oxford’s rep after Giles Coren gave a fry-up he ate during a city stay a zero rating.
If you love breakfast and appreciate a little ceremony, Blanc’s town-to-country eatery Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons has a spread of line-caught Scottish salmon, hefty legs of jamón, and warm, rich pains au chocolat. Starting your day here will save you a few zeroes on the bill later.
Witney is a pretty town 30 minutes from Oxford by car. It was the constituency of David Cameron before he left for London to seek his fortune, but a more lasting legacy is its legion of tea rooms. For a gourmet grab-bag, The Hollybush Sandwich Shop (a new venture from the gents behind the equally appealing Hollybush pub across the road) has classic sarnies made good with Cotswolds-sourced ingredients.
But why have a Ploughman’s when you can scarf down teriyaki pork belly with kimchi, beef brisket with bubbling cheese and straining-at-the-seams sausage rolls? Huffkins further proves Witney’s culinary clout with packed club sandwiches and deep melty rarebit dishes (the Poire William with cured ham and pears is our favourite), but you’ll make room for its vast strawberry shortcakes and Chelsea buns.
For ray-of-sunshine interiors and cow-to-cup ice-cream visit lovely Cogges Kitchen on Church Lane.
Markets, festivals and foraging
The countryside’s strong sense of community and widely spaced farms makes food a highly sociable affair, and the dedicated should trawl markets and festivals for tidbits (or ‘bigger bits’). For gỏi cuốn rolls filled with farm veggies from Tuyens Kitchen, crumbs of Woefuldane Organic Hampton Blue from Curds & Whey dairy, and steak and crispy frites from new trader Gourdans Steak Frites, hit bi-monthly North Parade Market or Summertown Farmers’ Market, held on Sundays from 10am.
To the South of Oxford, the annual Didcot Food Festival (held in October) and Banbury Food Fair (held in late August) have fully stocked larders of experts, chefs and food trucks. While in Banbury, pop into Carpenters Farm Shop for a bite of Alex James’ Little Wallop. The truly dedicated to digging up Oxfordshire’s latest can book a foraging course with superlative scavenger Robin Harford. So much more rewarding than fighting an earnest dude in a beanie for the last bunch of nettles in Victoria Park…
Before you go…
Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms is indubitably the coolest thing to happen to South Leigh for a while. Formerly owned by local character Gerry Stonhill (who, locals will eagerly tell you, was not one to mince words…), it’s now a Hoxton-by-way-of-the-M40 watering-hole with huge steins of cider, flashes of neon and a fluster of friendly staff.