I step into Greens Cafe, located on St Giles’ road, at close to midday. Fortunately they serve breakfast all day. The walls of this cramped cafe are plastered with posters and flyers advertising events. Downstairs, a storefront with seating for two (or maybe three at most) with more seating upstairs.
A significant part of the business seems to be takeaway, with stacks of disposable coffee cups and a fridge full of juices and soft drinks. There are various construction sites on Woodstock Road. Tough men come and go.
This is not an exclusively vegetarian place, but the advertising emphasises that vegetarian tastes are catered for. I ask the waitress what kind of sausages they use in their vegetarian breakfast. She brings out the box – Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages.
The breakfast is very basic: grilled mushroom (impossible to mess up), baked beans (what appears to be a whole tin), small potatoes (that I don’t touch), fried egg and two thin slices of white bread on a humongous white plate. And the McCartney sausages of course, which seem to be the saving grace of the meal, though somewhat salty. The baked beans are swimming in a sauce that must be recognisable the world over, that reddish-brown concoction of sugar, salt and preservatives.
Greens prides itself for freshly made organic, fair trade and free range food. I feel drenched in sugar, salt and fat when I leave.
For lunch, I head out to the south-eastern side of town. The destination is Magic Cafe on Magdalen Road, which connects Iffley and Cowley Roads. I am not that familiar with this residential part of town. It’s always been the place to go for international cuisine (and Nando’s) and to get hair done (about three times in the two self-sufficient years I spent in Oxford, but black haircare in this town can spawn a treatise all on its own).
I don’t have a map with me but it all seemed very simple when I looked at it last night. Head down Cowley or Iffley and eventually you hit Magdalen Road. But a few blocks into Cowley Road, I wonder if I read the map upside down. Surely Magdalen Road must be close to Magdalen College. So I walk back towards the Oxford city centre. But then I realise that unlike the dreadlocked man who is talking to himself and whose eyes I am diligently avoiding, I’m a pretty sane person. I stick to my earlier ideas, but now I walk down Iffley Road to avoid the soliloquist altogether.
Before I’m tempted to stop someone and ask for directions, I arrive at Magdalen Road, which is in fact quite far from Magdalen College. Unlike Greens, Magic Cafe is blessed with space. The atmosphere is homely and relaxed with shared long tables and baby stools lined against the walls. Sing it Back, Moloko plays in the background. The specials for the day are laid out in wooden bowls behind a counter. A skinny guy in a cheerful waist coat dishes up for me: curry made of cauliflower and potatoes, cabbage and rice on the side. I order some chamomile tea to go with that.
The place had already filled up by the time I arrive. Just after two o’clock, the place runs out of bread and rice. Working through a large, full plate, I ponder the issue of portion control in less formal establishments. I walked out on two-thirds of my breakfast at Greens. I’m used to corporatised places where servings are measured and standardised. Think Tasha’s and Life Cafe in Hyde Park (Jozi, not London).
I catch a glimpse of a rather homely kitchen. This really feels like I have stepped into someone’s house. A hearty generous serving of curry on a cloudy day. I can’t complain.
On my walk back to St Antony’s, where I’m staying, I pop into Neal’s Yard, a purveyor of natural beauty and health products. The sales assistant is helpful but it’s clear that she has never heard of acai. At Sahara clothing, where I think I might pick up a gift for my mom, the sales assistants ignore me completely. I receive a better reception at the Meller contemporary art gallery, which is showing some Miro, Picasso and Dali prints (some signed by the artist) at rather attractive price points. But I try not to buy art impulsively and the thought of getting any of this through an airport then customs is daunting.
A nap later, I walk down Plantation Road, towards The Gardener’s Arms, a traditional English pub. Traditional in every sense except that it only serves vegetarian meals. It is cosy with low ceilings and wood-panelled walls lined with books. A light-coloured, floral Tiffany-type lampshade adds unexpected cheer to this dark space.
After a day of heavy meals, I dare not have the main meals but a Greek salad would defeat the point so I settle for a kiddie burger.
Technically, this is Jericho but it’s only a short walk from St Antony’s. The crowd is academic, discussing course loads, tutors and rowing.
This is a pub, ultimately. I find two small sachets of Heinz tomato sauce buried under my chips. The vegan burger is respectable. The white roll, lettuce and tomato unremarkable. The atmosphere is local, simple, pubby.