It goes without saying that over the years, British food has not had a stellar reputation. Much of this comes from strict rationing that occurred during wartimes, though a climate requiring that foods be preserved, boiled, stewed, or battered and fried certainly doesn’t help the case. It is unfair, however, that British food should still be suffering from this stigma. Especially in London, the culinary climate has been shifting toward excellence and diversity for years now, with multiculturally inspired dishes appearing as staples in British cuisine as early as the 1960’s and 70’s. More recently, British chefs have embraced the concepts embodied by the most forward-thinking food producers around the world, offering innovative, expertly-crafted dishes with a focus on quality and sustainability. And despite a concern a few years back that this type of fine food was only available to the ultra-rich diners who were seeking over-the-top experiences, it was clear on a recent visit that these days (in the cities I was able to visit, of course), delicious food can be found just about anywhere, on any budget. So to those of you who scoff when thinking about British food, I say, “pish posh!” The wonderful meals I was able to enjoy during my trip prove the stereotype wrong - especially the breakfasts and brunches. So let’s take the grand culinary tour, shall we?
After snagging a really good flight deal, my husband and I embarked on about a week-and-a-half trip to jolly old England. We spent approximately half our time in London, and the other half galavanting around the west, stopping in Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Bath. Today’s post outlines our adventures to the west, and on Saturday I’ll share the details of the London leg of our trip.
There are a few important points I’d like to note: first, our visit landed over the Christmas holiday, so many restaurants were closed for extended holiday during our visit. This was most common in Oxford and Bath, where many of our must-visit spots in were unfortunately closed. This occurred in London as well, but not nearly as frequently. Second, surprisingly, we didn’t do very much restaurant planning before arriving (that is very unlike me). With a few exceptions, we did most of our food-scouting once we got there - and truthfully I wish I had done more research, because clearly this country is chock full of culinary delights. And yet, even without much prior planning, we never once found ourselves with a bad meal. So, take that, crappy British food reputation!
Known as “the city of dreaming spires,” setting foot in Oxford truly feels like stepping into another time. As the home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, the city has grown slowly over time around the legendary University of Oxford, boasting an incredible range of architecture dating back from as early as 1040. Getting to Oxford from London is a breeze: direct trains from Paddington Station depart frequently for a very reasonable price. The city is simply packed with history and culture, and amazingly, it’s contained to a rather small and very walkable area.
For our two nights in Oxford, we stayed at the gorgeous Old Parsonage Hotel, located within walking distance of all the major sights. The hotel is situated, literally, in an old parsonage - or, a residence provided by a church for its clergy. The building is just about as charming as you could imagine an old English home to be: it’s made of beautiful stone and is covered in Wisteria, with a walled-in garden in front, and wrought-iron window frames holding small square panes of glass. Inside, you are greeted by a roaring fire, dark painted walls covered in art, and comfortable, modern furnishings. Oh, and don’t forget the upstairs library available for hotel guests. It’s beautiful, classic, and positively luxurious.
The Old Parsonage Bar & Grill is a treat in itself, offering classic British dishes all day (including a tempting-looking afternoon tea), created from local and sustainable ingredients. At dinnertime, we loved the Smoked Mackerel, Leek & Dill tart, and for breakfast, the Egg Florentine was absolutely divine. The details were also appreciated here - have you ever seen a prettier coffee set?
We did manage to venture outside our cozy hotel on occasion while in Oxford, though as I mentioned earlier, we unfortunately found that many of the restaurants we’d hoped to visit were closed for an extended Christmas holiday. However, we still managed to find plenty of delicious food and drink: we enjoyed a classic, greasy Full English Breakfast at the News Café, ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies at Ben’s Cookies and bona fide third-wave coffee in the Covered Market, and of course, a pint at the Eagle and Child, the pub where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ writing group famously met each week.
One of our favorite Oxford meals was a simple lunch at Vaults and Garden, a café situated in Oxford University’s old congregation room, a space that back to 1320. The room itself is stunning with its dramatic vaulted ceiling, and during the summer, you can sit outside in the garden. As quaint as the establishment is, we didn’t expect much of the food - but we were delightfully surprised to find that everything was not only flavorful, but organic! The Welsh Rarebit, paired with a pot of Earl Grey, was the perfect way to warm up on a chilly afternoon.
Oxford is also home to a truly excellent art museum called the Ashmolean, which, in true Oxford trailblazing style, was founded as the first university museum in 1683. While you can easily get lost in the museum’s thoughtfully curated exhibits for hours on end, you will need some sustenance to keep you on your feet. Luckily, the Ashmolean Rooftop Restaurant offers a beautiful space to rest and recharge with delicious, healthful cuisine. Oh, and a little bit of wine won’t hurt either.
Thyme at Southrop
Admittedly, New Year’s Eve is probably my least favorite holiday. To me, there’s nothing worse than getting all dressed up and staying out past my bedtime, having to elbow my way through crowds of drunk people. Seriously, what’s the point? Luckily, my husband is on the same page with me on this, so our usual New Year’s Eve tradition consists of getting an early dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, drinking some wine on the couch, and going to bed around ten. You can imagine the anxiety we faced when we considered what New Year’s Eve in another city might look like, especially when we considered celebrating in London - so instead, we decided to use the holiday as an opportunity to hole up in the middle of nowhere: we chose Thyme at Southrop.
Technically, Southrop isn’t the middle of nowhere. It’s in the Cotswolds, part of the picturesque British countryside, but it’s only a short drive from Oxford. The town is adorably tiny: a collection of maybe twelve old stone buildings, four or five of which belong to Thyme. Called “an English country destination,” Thyme sits on 150 acres and occupies several lovingly renovated old buildings, including a medieval barn. The hotel (if you can call it that - it is most similar to a sprawling country bed and breakfast) offers beautiful rooms and private cottages that are available year round. What sets the operation apart is their food program - the lively garden and farm provide the food that their restaurant serves, from produce to fresh eggs and meat. In the summer, Thyme offers cookery (that’s “cooking” for us Americans) classes and retreats, and in the summer, garden tours.
During our stay, we were able to partake in a wonderful New Year’s Eve feast at the Tithe Barn: a buffet of delicious, home cooked British specialties with modern twists. Afterward, we were invited to the Swan, a pub owned by the Thyme team, for a party with live music and friendly conversation with the locals.
Breakfasts at Thyme were absolutely delightful, with a rotating menu each day that featured fresh home-baked bread and pastries, incredibly delicious yogurt with fruit, and seasonal egg dishes. We especially loved their take on the English breakfast and their light and fluffy pancakes.
Just a short walk down the road, the team at The Swan was busy redefining pub food: while its fare is heavily rooted in British tradition, dishes at The Swan have been masterfully reimagined and cooked to perfection using the highest quality local ingredients. Our meal here was some of the best food of our trip, and I’ll never forget the incredible homemade ice cream. The pub itself is impossibly cozy, with fireplaces in each room and antique country furnishings. Truly, a dream!
At some point, we had to tear ourselves from the charms of the country, so we made our way to Bath. Like Oxford, Bath is a city rich in culture and history, with a wide range of architectural styles that date back centuries. It is best known for its ancient Roman baths, which are in remarkably good shape and can be viewed up close.
The natural hot springs that feed the baths were once considered to be healing waters, and over the centuries, people with all manner of afflictions pilgrimaged to Bath in hopes of finding some healing or relief. And as we learned in our free guided walking tour of the city (which you absolutely must take if you visit), you can still bathe in these very waters at a fancy modern spa, just steps away from the original.
What I found most captivating about Bath, however, was just how much it felt like something straight out of a Jane Austen novel. With so much 18th Century Georgian architecture, you could easily imagine Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey out for a promenade down one of the many beautiful streets (arm-in-arm with Mr. Tilney, of course). Lucky for me (and my fellow Austin fans), Bath is equipped with a delightfully quirky Jane Austen Museum, complete with a tea room with a prominently displayed painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. No, I am not kidding. It is wonderfully absurd and absolutely charming. And, the scone with clotted cream is heaven.
While our first choices for dinner while in Bath were sadly closed for the holiday, we were lucky to stumble upon a fantastic vegetarian restaurant just steps away from Bath Abbey called Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen. As a former vegan, I am still always excited to find delicious vegetarian food - it is still rare to find a conventional restaurant that knows how to treat a vegetable as well as a good vegetarian chef does - so we were lucky to stroll in and grab one of the few tables in this tiny, cozy restaurant. Each dish we sampled was delicious, flavorful, creative, and expertly prepared. Our favorite dishes included the Chioggia Beetroot Slivers, the Leek and Potato, and the Salted Chocolate Tart with peanut butter sorbet. This spot is a great find for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, and it made things especially easy on my poor dairy-allergic husband.
For our one night in Bath, we stayed at The Kennard, a charming hotel located in an original Georgian townhouse that was once used as lodging for those spending a season in Bath. In many ways, it feels a little bit too original - the tiny bathroom, which would have been a dream for an occupant back in the day, to us felt cramped - but its charm and convenient location make it all worthwhile. Breakfast is included here, served in a downstairs dining room, and is made from locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients. In addition to being delicious, it all felt very refined with the fancy flatware and touches of silver on the table.
As we meandered through Bath, we passed countless adorable bakeries, coffee shops, and tea rooms, not to mention windows full of savory pies. Unfortunately one's stomach is rarely bottomless, so most of Bath's delights will need to be left for another time. Like Oxford, Bath is just a short train ride from London, so heading back into the city was quick and easy.
Clearly, there is much deliciousness to be found in jolly old England - especially in brunch form. And if such bounty can be found outside of London, you can only imagine what treats are to be found in the big city! Be sure to pop by on Saturday for all the ooey-gooey details.
Until then, Cheers!