Food I Have Known: Cambridge Chronicles
July 21, 2003

Tonight I am filled with nostalgia. I'm listening to Jimmy Dorsey sing "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," I've got a glass of Pimm's and lemonade (Sprite or 7-Up to us unkempt Americans) sweating on a coaster, and I just finished watching Oxford Blues. Rob Lowe in tight jeans and horribly skinny ties aside, it made me miss England in the worst away. It made me miss the food of England in the worst way.

Seriously. Don't scoff. I spent a few summers in Cambridge, England and after I graduated from college, I went back and spent close to a year there.

Those summers, oh, man, those summers! It was during my first summer when I discovered a good deal of food I miss today. I was studying Shakespeare's comedic plays at Trinity Hall -- "Ah, ah, but that would be, Tit Hawwll, Stephanie." Thank you, James Viggers -- and a heat wave had hit England. Two years later, I got a student work visa and stayed much longer. And ate much more.

Nadia's Patisserie. Forget the chocolate slices, flapjacks and other pastries they cranked out, the thing I still crave from Nadia's are the baguette sandwiches. Soft brie and tomato or papery slices of smokey ham, smears of cream cheese and a sprinkling of chives. I know they had scads more variations but those were the two I ordered over and over again. Nadia's also sold bright little bags of crisps in flavors I've yet to see in my own country -- ham and mustard, roast beef and onion, cheese and Branston's pickle relish, hint of curry, roast lamb and mint, roast chicken and thyme...they were so creative, so tasty! You could find other interesting varieties of crisps at pubs around town, and I was well acquainted with which pubs had which crisps. As the evening wore on, some scrounged in their pockets for another pint, I scrounged for another packet of crisps. I was constantly on the lookout for the tart ones KP Skips put out as "prawn-flavored" but usually only found them at Sainsbury.

When I lived in my Melbourne Place flat across from Parker's Piece, I finally had a kitchen and thus, Sainsbury market became a new Mecca. We always had a full stock of tea, flat packages of smoked salmon, Flora spread, crumbly Lancashire cheese, Branston's pickle relish and oh, my god -- Fairy washing up liquid! Okay, technically, Fairy's not a food but it smelled like green apples and I loved it so much. That little white bottle was tons better than the lemon-scented stuff or Palmolive (what is that supposed to smell like, anyway? Palms? Olives?) crap we had here until the last few years when we finally got all caught up in the name of aromatherapy. Then there was that time I got so carried away by snorting the Fairy -- you have to squeeze the bottle so that little puff of air that sits on top of the actual soap wheezes out to really smell it -- that I squirted a bit of it up my nose. It stung. A lot.

What else did we buy there? Oh, right, those cunning little tubs of wild mushroom or spinach pâté were perfect for taking on picnics as were the micro jars of Skippy's peanut butter -- all of which spread beautifully on the warm and squishy 0.39p baguettes. The Roommate was so taken with those baguettes that she would drag me into Sainsbury just to squeeze them through their paper. On the sweet side of the street, we carted home frosty boxes of Raspberry Pavlova -- I've since learned how to make it in school but Sara Lee has yet to pre-make and freeze it for the rest of you -- sweetly oaty digestive biscuits from McVitties, and thick Hobnobs with either plain or milk chocolate on one side. The "one nibble and your nobbled" cookie has finally come to our shores but they cost a ridiculous six bucks!

Finally, we get to Mathra's favorite: Battenberg. It came in both large and small, but the Battenberg we usually got was an eight-inch long square loaf. The cake's outside was wrapped in a thin sparkly layer of sugar-crusted marzipan and inside was pink and yellow checkerboard of almond-flavored cake. It was so incredibly sweet, so incredibly addicting, and the requisite half-inch slices went better with a good strong cup of Yorkshire Gold than anything else.

Sainsbury's plastic triangles of packaged sandwiches sound particularly disgusting and potentially botulistic but they really weren't. Sainsbury had so many varieties that we loved: chopped egg and cress, tuna salad and bacon, cheddar, cream cheese and celery, Emmenthaler cheese and spring onion. The Roommate and I had our favorites: I was known to have a penchant for prawn and mayonnaise and The Roommate was partial to cucumber and salmon, and yes, I know neither sounds like a good idea when sealed in a plastic package. However, we were always careful to check the dates and we never experienced any sudden urges to "gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now." Sometimes we even lucked out with a "triple" and got three of our favorite sandwiches in a single package. To us, this was British ingenuity at its very best. Forget all that stuff about the Turing machine, Babbage's stamps, and those rumors about the jet engine -- three sandwiches in a single neatly wrapped package trumps them all.

Another little sandwich shop we discovered was Peppercorn's. They had pretty much the same fare as Nadia's with perhaps more of an emphasis on baps ("baps" is slang for sandwich). In fact, it was at Peppercorn's that I discovered Coronation Chicken salad sandwiches, and for that I will always be grateful.

After a night at the pub, more drinks back in someone's rooms or on the Backs, and maybe a few ill-advised cigarettes, there was one late-night place that filled that aching hole alcohol carved in our stomachs spot better than bacon and eggs back at our flat: Gardenia. Or Gardy's to everyone who frequented. Gardy's was this hovel of a place that served up everything from hamburgers (never had them) to Aubergine salad in a pita (think of a Turkish spin on ratatouille) to donner kabobs (so many multiple spellings of this thingy) and other Middle Easterny snacks.

One night, The Roommate and I were introduced to Chip Butty -- "butty" is more slang for sandwich, and I put this to you: how can you not adore a country's cuisine that has heaps of slang for sandwich?! This odd -- but damn good -- concoction consisted of chips (fries, to you phood philistines) stuffed in a slice of pita bread and topped with mayonnaise and your option of salad (lettuce). It was eaten like a sandwich.

A French fry sandwich! God, who thinks of that? Some even doused the thing with HP Brown Sauce or ketchup. After a few of those, we discovered a slightly healthier -- but still damn good -- option: tzaziki sauce instead of mayo. There were terrible yearning times when The Roommate and I actually craved Chips Butty when we hadn't even been drinking.

But in the daylight hours of that first summer, Lady Wolverton and I would just grab a few sandwiches wrapped in their crackly pure white butcher's paper and take them down to the river. Sometimes we had a punt but other times we just sat on the Backs and watched the punts. And the people in them. More often than not, we had a bottle of wine between us. Yet another excellent thing about England: the lovely lack of Puritanical open-container laws. And you can bet we took lovely advantage of it.

Behind Nadia's in this teeny passageway there was a specialty cheese shop -- sadly, because I wasn't given to noticing those things back then, I don't remember the name -- and one day, after being invited on a punting picnic by two "eligible" Trinity College guys we picked up a huge slab of runny brie, grabbed some warm baguettes (for 0.39p each! 0.39p!!), several pints of strawberries, a bag of green grapes and met the guys, who waited with a Trinity punt and bottles of wine. We didn't get up as far as Granchester that day because Lady Wolverton ended up in the Cam after a few failed -- but hearty! -- attempts to wield the punt. Of course, that didn't matter too much because we had already been rained on earlier in the day. Not wanting to get the food wet or dilute the cheap French wine, we did manage to hide under Clare bridge until most of the sun shower moved along. But there were other days -- other picnics -- where we ended up with pints at The Rupert Brooke before going back.

I can still taste that pungent brie and those huge strawberries with the wine, which, though cheap, was damn good. I do realize, of course, that by today's standards a picnic of wine, brie, and fruit aren't exactly exotic or even original but for us, that day, in that punt, it was the food of the gods.

In 1997 and with work visa in hand, I met my future husband and a whole new world of B.A. Dinners at Trinity College opened up to me. To go to a B.A. Dinner -- like the undergrad "Formal Hall" -- you had to be invited. Luckily, we were connected to a few members of the B.A. Society. In fact, my first date with Mathra took place at one of these functions. The guys had to wear blazers and khakis, and the girls usually wore skirts or dresses. We're not talking taffeta bow-formal, either, just not jeans. Before dinner, everyone gathered in the Old Combination Room -- a sort of beautifully decorated antechamber to Hall -- for sherry. You had your choice of amontillado or cream; dryish or sweetish, respectively. Besides just the idea of "sherry hour" existing in this elegant room, on this beautiful campus, in this romantic country, the thing that impressed me the most was that the sherry bottles didn't have Savory & James or Bristol labels, they had Trinity College buttery labels. It was their own sherry!

After dinner -- throughout which wine, beer, and cider flowed extremely liberally and without a price tag -- we all retired back to the Old Combination Room for coffee, After Eight mints, and port. Sometimes there was even a lecture, you know, to broaden our minds. I specifically remember one guy throwing a boomerang around the room and talking physics. Like the sherry, the port was also emblazoned with Trinity College buttery labels. I'm pretty sure it was always ruby port. To this day, Mathra and I have never found a port we like better than Trinity College ruby. That we can afford. On our honeymoon we spent a few days in Cambridge -- in fellows guest rooms, no less -- and ended up buying six bottles of port to have with us in Scotland and take back to the U.S. We can't buy port without making sure we have boxes of After Eight mints in the fridge.

Man, there's so much more to cover that I'm thinking this is going to have to be the first of many entries of British Cuisine, because let's face it, Cadbury chocolates and the fact that there are refrigerated Cadbury vending machines at various tube stops deserves its own entry -- don't you think?

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