I settled into Cambridge a bit less than a week ago, and have been slowly acquainting myself with the city since. Since I didn’t pack much other than my clothes, I’ve had to get out and about quite a bit to establish myself in comfort. To some degree the high density of shops, cafes, and restaurants paired with the small extent of the city reminds me of places like Gainesville, FL or Athens, GA, but in truth I’ve never been in an American city quite like this. The streets are narrow and the buildings remnants of another era like historic Annapolis, but every sidewalk is as crowded with pedestrians as Manhattan. Students play cricket, rugby, and soccer in Parker’s Piece while teenagers test their skateboards and bikes in a nearby skatepark. There are bits and pieces of familiar elements of places I’m familiar with, but it forms an incongruent whole, as least for my American sensibilities. Nonetheless I am delighted by it.
So far the most delightful bit has been choosing to indulge myself in an English tradition: the Sunday roast. After doing a bit of research on local blogs and websites, I settled on The Clarendon Arms as host to my small adventure. During my research, I turned up a surprising string of stories covering the tense politics of pubs in England. Historically, most pubs in England have been owned by breweries, which operate sort of like franchises as far as I can understand. The pub operator leases the space from the brewery and is obliged to buy beer from the brewery at a rate dictated by the brewery. Usually what is served isn’t exclusive; of the two pubs I’ve been to thus far, up to 50% of the cask conditioned ales were guest breweries. However, it seems potential for clashes over operation of the pubs is high.
The Clarendon Arms is a Greene King pub. Greene King has been nicknamed Greedy King on account of its aggressive profiteering tactics. Backlash has ranged from a publican posting an open letter apologizing to customers for price increases and vandalism of a sign advertising a local pub for sale to a boycott of a popular pub for over 100 days after Greene King decided to pull a locally produced beer to increase sales of its own product. That boycott even featured a Bonfire Night protest in which the CEO of Greene King was burned in effigy. There has even been a band of tenants who established a company named Greedy King to take Greene King to court as an anti-trust measure.
That said, any corporate bullying impacted my experience not at all. The pub was like nothing I’d encountered in the US. It was truly a family establishment, with many patrons coming in as part of parties of three or more, often with children still a little unsteady on their legs. The front of house was run by just two people, and as I took my seat at the bar one of them was stoking up the fire across the room. Cricket trophies sat upon the mantle. A dog sitting in a tote bin on a counter received affection from patrons and staff alike.
The food was also unlike anything I’ve encountered before. I ordered pork, which came with sides of pureed butternut squash, fresh apple sauce, roast carrots and peas, Yorkshire pudding, steamed leek, and roast potatoes. The flavors of some portions was inexplicable to me, starting with the potatoes. The potatoes were tender in the center but has a crunchy, crisp shell about them, and they tasted rich in a way that could not be due to butter alone. They had a sort of fresh-baked bread wholesomeness to them, and had clearly benefitted from some animal fat. The carrots still had some snap to them despite having becoming tender to the tooth and absorbed flavorful butter and sage. Almost without exception each vegetable was fresh, perfectly cooked, and exciting to eat. Equally good was the pork, slow roasted until it was fall-apart tender, each bite made all the more satisfying by the addition of crackling.
With the meal I had Greene King Abbot Ale, which was a well-balanced beer that showed off British malt flavor more than any of the real ale I’ve tried thus far (only about six), and one of the few to have discernible hop presence. The hops tasted floral and spicy, and the beer was brilliantly clear, which seems to be the norm for cask-conditioned ales. I also had a half-pint of Greene King IPA following the meal, which seemed indistinguishable to me from the bitters I’ve tried: less than 4% ABV, not much hop flavor or aroma, balanced, and dry. Certainly not what I’ve come to understand as an IPA, but the bartender assured me that it was a typical example of the style in England. He additionally poured me two samples, one from Lancaster Brewing Co. called Lemon Grass which is one of the more exciting beers I’ve had thus far (one of the few that hasn’t been relatively one-dimensional) and one called Crafty Devil by Thwaites that had a bit more toasty dark malt character. The bartender said some people call it “old man beer,” and made a point that British beer is made for drinking all day long, presumably in contrast to American brews which average 1-2% higher in ABV in my experience.
By the time I left I could feel a involuntary smile at the corner of my lips. Not only was the food outstanding, but I felt I’d mustered up the courage to have a good time. This was my second trip to a pub, but really the first time I’d talked to anyone other than my housemates or people at the Cambridge Chemistry Department for more than a minute. Even if I just had a small chat about beer, the samples the bartender gave me put me more at ease, made me less self-conscious about my accent or whether I might be behaving in a way that seems strange to other people. It made me forget for a moment that even my clothes is dissimilar to most people I see. I felt safe enough to chuckle when the bartender serving me frantically tried to poke his straw around the bottom of a Coke bottle while complaining to the other bartender that he’d had too much caffeine and needed something to do.
As I left I thanked the staff. They said ‘See you soon.’ I certainly plan to make good on that.
P.S. I know this post is long already, but quite a few people have asked how Cambridge is, so I’ll hopefully do some adventuring around sometime soon and snap some photos so you can all see. Also hopefully by the time I do that I’ll have a better handle on how to work this camera (which I’ve been quite timid with thus far). My next post will probably be in a week’s time on my visit to Cardiff and London, and maybe the following week I can do more about Cambridge.