Six years after his first blog, Alex Rushmer takes stock of the local food scene
Just over 16 years ago, in early winter 2000, I boarded a train at Stockport station and travelled to Cambridge for the first time. My two interviews were scheduled for the following day and an old school friend, a couple of years my senior, had offered me a floor and a sleeping bag for the night. Seeking both sustenance and Dutch courage, I wandered through the eerily quiet city streets, chilled to the bone by what would soon become a painfully familiar icy wind. The search ended, rather embarrassingly, in a Burger King followed by a swift pint in an identikit bar, decorated in that way all chain bars were kitted out in the late 90s.
I adored Cambridge immediately. I loved its architecture, its politics, its incredible ability to be so forward-thinking and yet almost compressed by the very weight of its own history. I loved the idea of being a part of a city that had such a sense of confidence and identity. But the food scene here wasn’t so much non-existent as actually bordering on irrelevant.
Of course, there were a few shining beacons – I remember a gloriously decadent summer picnic, gorging on Dolcelatte and crusty bread from the Cambridge Cheese Company – but those beacons were few and far between.
“Cambridge supports those who cook, create and sell their produce here”
How far we have come. I was reminded of this when reading over the first-ever column I wrote for this magazine a full six years ago. If the first decade of the 21st century saw a sea change in the food and dining scene in Cambridge, the second seems to have given us a complete overhaul. I ended that first piece with a plea: a plea for all of us to get out there and support the independent shops, retailers, cafés and restaurants – and it seems that’s exactly what happened.
Cambridge has become a city that adores its food and one that has become a proud and vocal supporter of those who cook, create, craft and sell their produce here and in the surrounding area. A nervous 17-year-old interviewee would have a very different experience from one just six years ago, let alone 16. There is a street food scene that beats that in many of Europe’s capital cities. There are watering holes that have redefined the very notion of what a pub should be. There are coffee shops and cafés that would rival the best that the Antipodes have to offer as well as truly world-class restaurants. Cambridge has done to food what it has done to countless other commodities and subjects throughout its history: embraced, improved upon and delivered them back out into the world to share with anyone and everyone who is hungry and willing.
So where now? What will there be to write about in another six years? This groundswell of enthusiasm is inspiring. Those who may have been put off from pursuing their own ideas can only be encouraged by the passion shown by those who are already doing it. I’m excited to see what happens next, and if you’re hungry, you should be too.