Cambridge University, with its medieval passageways and glorious college gardens, has dominated this town for over 800 years. It is the university of Byron and Wordsworth, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking, Emma Thompson and Stephen Frye. Francis Crick and James Watson famously announced their discovery of DNA at the Eagle, an event enshrined on a plaque on the pub’s smoke blackened walls.
David Lehman studied at Clare College in Cambridge for two years, while a Kellett Fellow from Columbia University. He was following in the footsteps of poets and scholars, including John Berryman, and his contemporaries David Shapiro and Aaron Fogel. While there he met Lawrence Joseph, a University of Michigan fellow at Magdalene (pronounced "Maudlyn") College, who became a life-long friend.
The University has its share of food lore: Trinity College claims credit for inventing crème brûlée (“Trinity cream”), any mention of “Clare College mush” to an “old boy” will surely elicit groans, and aside from the Queen, only the dons of St. John’s college can legally eat swan, inspiring a student to pen this bawdy limerick of renown:
There was a young man of St. John’s,
Who wanted to bugger some swans.
So he went to the porter
Who said, “Have my daughter!
The swans are reserved for the dons.”
David credits his years as a Clare College fellowship student with motivating him to cook: the food “in hall” was inedible and the restaurant fare that an American student abroad could afford was not much better. He saw no alternative to renting a flat, buying a few kitchen basics, and preparing his own meals.
David and I have returned to Cambridge several times over the past few years, most recently so that David could give readings at Clare. While he met with his former Dons, I sussed out the food scene, following pointers given by food-writer and restaurateur Tim Hayward, with whom we shared a leisurely morning at Fitzbillies, his tea-shop and restaurant.
What a difference a few decades make. Thanks to the high-speed train that departs every 30 minutes from London’s King Cross station and pulls into Cambridge in under an hour, Cambridge is both a tourist destination and a commuter town. It also has a flourishing food and dining scene, with chefs and culinary entrepreneurs as ambitious as a university mathematician vying for a Nobel. Cambridge is now home to two Michelin starred restaurants, the one-star Alimentum and the two-star Midsummer House, where an acquaintance predicted, correctly, that our meal would be “bonkers.” Though Chef Daniel Clifford flirts with molecular gastronomy, he honors his classical French training. It all comes together beautifully, as exemplified by my starter of celery and watercress bavarois with beetroot cannelloni balanced atop a scoop of horseradish ice cream.
While Cambridge has chain-food imports, we had no trouble finding local talent. Contemporary clichés apply: market driven, nose-to-tail, locavore. Here’s what we found:
1. Cambridge Cheese Company:
When we stepped into this welcoming shop, manager David Wilshin was unpacking bunches of fresh garlic, each head a tight fist of creamy cloves. These he would display in the window alongside stalks of white asparagus and a sign announcing the availability in bottles—finally—of the popular and bracing Pickled Pig Cider, brewed from local apples. We assembled a sampler comprising Cambridge Blue cheese, the nutty cow’s-milk Red Leicester, a wedge of the aptly named Stinking Bishop, and a Bramley apple and pork pie (made locally by an octogenarian farming couple).
Cambridge Cheese Company
4 All Saints Passage
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB2 3LS
+44 1223 32867
2. Cambridge Wine Merchants:
Don’t be fooled by the name. Though its wine selection is impressive enough to garner several awards, CWM has distinguished itself as a leading specialist in malt whiskey. At any given time you’ll find as many as 350 bottles on the shelves of the Kings Parade flagship store, some of which are quite rare either because the distillery no longer exists or the whiskey was in limited production. Fancy a bottle of 21 year Lagavulin? You’ll find it here for a mere 425£ (about $650.)
Cambridge Wine Merchants
2 King's Parade,
Cambridge CB2 1SJ,
+44 1223 309309
3. Cristine Patisserie:
If you blink while walking along Trumpington Street, you might miss Botolph Lane, which would be a shame because that’s where you’ll find Cristine Pattiserie, with its display case filled with Brazilian sweets such as brigadeiro, coconut beignho, and my favorite, the surprise de uva. From the outside, surprise de uva resembles a truffle, albeit a green one. Take a bite for a hit of cold grape juice from the single fruit hidden within.
1B Botolph Ln,
Cambridge CB2 3RD,
+44 7763 529886
Go to this bakery-café for a famed Chelsea bun, just to find out what all the fuss is about, but return for dinner to try chef Rosie Syke’s British cooking. When Alison Wright and Tim Hayward snatched this 90-year mainstay from the insatiable jaws of the fast-food monster, they introduced innovations that include selling artisanal bread from a local baker, inviting food-truck cooks to host “first Wednesday” pop-ups, and serving imaginatively conceived weekend dinners. The menu is posted Tuesday nights on Fitzbillies’ website. Tables fill quickly yet one still has the feeling of dining in undiscovered country. On the night of our visit, we had the boldly spiced seven-hour shoulder of lamb and a rich rabbit, chicken, and St. George’s mushroom pie baked in an oblong enamel tin that would dwarf a volume of Pepys’ diary.
52A Trumpington St
Cambridge CB2 1RG,
+44 1223 352500
5. Grantchester Orchards Tea Garden:
You can travel to this historic tea garden by car but far better to walk the two miles from center Cambridge. For the full Grantchester Orchards experience, hire a punt for transport by way of the river Cam. Here is the spot that aroused longing in WWI poet Rupert Brooke—But Grantchester! Ah, Grantchester! There’s peace and holy quiet there—and continues to attract Cambridge dons and students. Large and small tables and casual deck chairs are strategically placed throughout the leafy orchard, giving visitors a certain amount of privacy while they snack on tea, scones and light meals before gliding home.
Grantchester Orchards Tea Garden
45 - 47 Mill way,
Grantchester, Cambridge CB3 9ND
+44 1223 551125
6. Jack’s Gelato:
To find Jack, you either have to subscribe to his twitter feed (@jacks_gelato) or stumble upon him by accident while he’s dishing out inspired flavors from the back of his tricycle. Recent tweets: "Now scooping seven flavours outside the
@CUBotanicGarden. I am having an earl grey gelato. With a bit of dark chocolate on the side.Happy." and “Organic 72% dark chocolate and single estate Rwandan coffee sorbet, churning as I type. #pretentious #butdelicious.”
Jack’s Gelato (facebook)
133 Sturton Street
+44 7909 224178
7. Seasonality Cambridge:
Amanda O’Neill got her start by making bramble jelly with blackberries foraged while walking her dog. She now offers a full line of jams, preserves, and chutneys that includes Cambridge Greengage, Spiced Apricot & Cardamom Chutney, and her best selling Piccallili relish. Her latest creation is Summer Pudding conserve, inspired by the traditional English dessert of fruit and juice-soaked white bread layered in a deep bowl. Though her business has grown, Amanda works from her home kitchen, makes her own pectin, and has no plans to expand beyond Cambridge or into mail-order (though she’s happily “chuffed” when a customer wants her to ship to California). Visit her website for retail locations.
+44 7950 049618
8. Steak and Honour:
Hamburgers. Why would an American bother when there’s glorious fish and chips to be had? Chinese writer Lin Yutang rhetorically asked, “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” If you happen to be in Cambridge and feeling homesick, find the tricked-out Steak and Honour food truck and join the queue. Owner Leo Riethoff established his bona fides at top kitchens in London and Cambridge before turning his talents to the fundamentals of a good burger: great beef ground daily, brioche bun, and a garnish of pickles, lettuce, and onions with the requisite “Heinz Tommy K” and mustard. It’s your lucky day when Steak and Honour parks beside Jack’s Gelato.