Last month, I had the pleasure of dining at my alma pater – a term I’ve made up to describe the University you undertake post-graduate study and research at – not once, but twice. First for the Fellows’ Guest Night dinner, which fellows’ guests, Cambridge fanatics and alumni from throughout the ages invited back to enjoy the new Parker’s library collection, dinner, followed by an afterparty in the Master’s lodge – if I remember correctly – and another of the college’s rooms. Then for an everyday Friday formal with two old college-mates from Corpus, who were in the final year of their PhD’s in physics and life sciences whilst I did my MPhil. I was invited when I met one of my friends for a pre-formal drink at NOVI, an old favourite for almost any time of day and my venue of choice for my well-attended twenty-third birthday celebration, “Burgers in black-tie.” NOVI has an interesting gaping hole of a kitchen which is very much a part of the restaurant and used to be occupied by an assortment of local street food vendors. Steak & Honour are one such outfit, whose burgers used to be absolutely exquisite. Fun fact: the landlords of the luxury home I stayed in whilst interning with a local law firm hired Steak & Honour to provide food for their daughter’s wedding, which they hosted in their very own garden.
Cambridge has as much to offer food-wise as any other city, with its own unique assemblage of chains, hence once known as the UK’s worst offending “clone town”. Foreign cuisines ranging from Greek to Japanese to Korean, run of the mill cafes, independent establishments that count bistros, cafes, bars and noodle bars amongst their number, and Michelin star restaurants. It’s famed college halls, though, are the site of the “Harry Potter style” meals that are as equally well-known as the academic prowess, intellectual ingenuity and creative output of the individuals that eat there. The apostrophes here are a reference to a conversation with the Astrophysics fellow, part-of-the-college-furniture and person responsible for the college’s wine collection, who I was seated next to for my Queenborough Feast. Every Corpuscle attends a Queenborough Feast in the penultimate year of their time as a member of the college. He remarked that before J.K. Rowling’s celebrated series of magical modern folklore, when students or visitors first ate in the hall, they sat and looked on in awe. They were unlikely to have experienced an equivalent to the grandeur of the main hall, aside from the areas of the Halls of Parliament adorned with the same tails. Post-Potter and pals, he noticed a certain blase nonchalance as people settled down in their gowns.
And so we sat down nonchalantly in our gowns to dinner. Both times, asparagus was served as part of the first course. I preferred it the first time around, served with cheddar brulee and chive, than the second, which was served cold with goat’s milk. Corpus Christi boasts some of the best food served at formals of the colleges which make up the University of Cambridge. Again, the second, third and pudding courses were tastier at Fellows’ Guest Night than they were at Formal – the first normal formal sit-down since the hall had been refurbished.
Cheddar brulee, asparagus and chive
Confit sea trout, spinach, caviar butter sauce
Oeuf Florentine en cocotte
Best end of lamb, Fine beans, ratatouille and black olive
Potato and onion pithivier
Rhubarb crumble tart, mascarpone ice cream
Jules Taylor, Pinot Gris, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2016
Bodegas Briego, Vendimia Seleccionada, Ribera Del Duero, Spain, 2013
Dom. de l’Ancienne Cure, Jour de Fruit, Monbazillac, Dordogne, 2009
Graham, LBV, 2011
The final wine entry, the port, was served during the afterparty. The Monbazillac, the dessert wine, was easily the best thing on the menu. Sweet without being overbearingly so, because of its body and timbre, if I can use that word to describe a wine, which was velvety.
As with so many culinary occasions in Cambridge, the city where time seems to stand still, it was the company, the conversations and the sense of camaraderie that rolls about college and city “happenings,” as a bucolic Swedish college-mate used to call social events, which really adds to the meal. The day after the second of the two May 2019 Corpus dinners, I sat comfortably squished in next to my college-mate, on the punt, whilst he poured the concoction of liquids necessary to make an aperitif spritz, whilst we ambled along the river, laughing and toasting other punters who came prepared with alcoholic beverages. Seven of us on a St Johns boat, meaning we didn’t have to queue. It was a lovely warm day. It was hot. We were happy. Later that evening, I dined alone at a wonderful Japanese restaurant, served dumplings, kelp salad and mochi ice cream by the smiley-eyed chef and waiter. It was warm, the food was home-made and fresh. I was happy. Back to my college-mates house for rooibos tea and crossed wires. The tea was hot, spirals of steam creating a visible mist in the candlelit darkness of the room. I was happy. More homemade dumplings and inspired conversation, with new friends, I hope, in a lovely house in Cherry Hinton.
Food glorious food, and drinks.