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Visiting Oxford for a week in July and I love to shop for groceries:

I have a great opportunity to visit for a week, and am looking for recommendations about what to do while I'm there. I have a thing for grocery stores, so where would be a good place to start? I'll be cooking some while there, but also looking for gifts/items to bring home with me. This is my first trip to the UK, so any advice would be appreciated.

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  1. There's a Waitrose in Headington- it's a high-end UK supermarket. Definitely worth a trip if you like supermarkets and food. Take the bus up the hill from town.

    In town, there is also Marks & Spencer- I would say this is on a par with Waitrose, or maybe just a half step down. Has lots more ready-to-eat stuff and ready-prepared stuff.

    Also in town are two small versions of the UK's giant chain supermarkets: Tesco and Sainsbury's.

    I hardly ever go to Tesco and Sainsbos, however, because if I'm in town, I'll buy my food at the Covered Market (not a grocery store, but has independent traders: butchers, fishmonger, greengrocers, bakery, cheesemonger, florists, plus lots of touristy gift shops). On Thursdays, there is also a market at Gloucester Green. Since I have to work in the day during the week (!), I haven't been in ages, but I remember they have a pretty good line-up of meat suppliers from around the area.

    15 Replies
    1. re: Palladium

      Thank you - that's exactly the kind of info I'm looking for. When I went to Italy I had waaaaay more fun in a dingy megamart than I did at the Murano glass shops - so many pastas, coffees, and spices to take home and play with. I've read up on the street markets and am looking forward to visiting for my cooking while I'm there. I'm familiar with M&S and Tesco and am excited to get to visit them. Any recommendations on fun foodie treats I can pick up?

      1. re: NonnieMuss

        I also like browsing supermarkets when I'm in the UK. The prepared food tends to be much higher quality than what I find in Canada, where I live, and some of the prepared foods that might be standard for people in the UK are novelties for me. I usually take a stroll down the spice aisle, dry packaged prepared food aisle and baked goods section, to see if they have anything I can't find at home. I can't find prepared coronation chicken sandwiches or prawn cocktail sandwiches easily in Canada, packaged or not! I also like picking up British baked goods I can't find at home, such as Bakewell Tarts or Eccles Cakes, and sometimes the grocery store is the only place to find traditional English baked goods these days.

        M & S used to have locations in Canada, but closed in the late 1990s. I usually pick up some prawn cocktail shells at M & S, since the only place I can get the M & S type is in the UK now. I often will pick up various savoury and sweet packaged snacks at M &S as well as Boots before leaving the UK.

        At the Covered Market, I have a good memory of picking up Petit Fours when I visited Oxford as a kid. I don't know if anyone still sells Petit Fours at the Covered Market, but it made a huge impression on me. I haven't had such a good Petit Four since.

      2. re: Palladium

        I don't get M&S.

        Prepared food? No thanks.
        Unbranded sundries of unknown origin? No thanks.
        Piss poor selection of (cheap) wine/beer & spirits? No thanks.

        1. re: brokentelephone

          I think the food arm of M&S is usually the top performer for the company, so they're clearly aiming their offerings successfully at their audience.

          I confess I hardly ever go into the M&S in town- I don't buy the ready-prepared, cook-at-home stuff and the other grocery basics I get at the Co-Op across the street from our place. As I said, if I'm in town, I'll get fresh produce and meat/fish at the Covered Market, usually.

          Having said all that, I buy my lunch at the small M&S at the station all the time. I commute by train, so if I don't have leftovers to take to work, I buy a salad from them at the station. In cooler weather, I also buy their soups.

          1. re: brokentelephone

            I'd love to think I'll be cooking delicious homemade food every day, but I have no idea what my kitchen facilities will be like, so a premade this or that isn't going to ruin my trip. Plus I'll be traveling around as much as I can - I don't want to spend the whole trip in the kitchen. It may be just the thing for a picnic lunch on the train.

            1. re: NonnieMuss

              NonnieMuss -- I meant as a browsing supermarket for a visitor it isn't very exciting -- it's all store-branded products so basically no selection and you're unlikely to find any obscure ingredients.

              I'm sure the ready made meals are fine if you're not cooking 24/7 (which I personally wouldn't want to do on holiday), though the ones at Waitrose are probably better (esp. the Heston range I'd guess).

              That said, this isn't a thread about M&S so I'll shut my mouth now. The English love that place!

              1. re: brokentelephone

                Full confession: I am familiar with M&S and Tesco from reading the Bridget Jones books. And since I'm planning a week of eating/drinking with girlfriends, it seems just the thing.

                One of my favorite books in high school partly took place at a restaurant called Taco Time - I thought it was fictional, but traveling in Oregon I saw one! I was so excited and wanted to stop, but my hosts were horrified and explained that it was like a local version of Taco Bell - horrible fast food Mexican. So I'll be excited just to visit places I've read about, even in fluffy chick-lit.

              2. re: NonnieMuss

                I'm not sure where you're from, but as an American who now lives in England but used to be a tourist, I say phooey to those who say M&S isn't worthwhile shopping at or exploring. It's so unlike the food (especially the prepared meals) that one finds in U.S. supermarkets that I think it's just fine to get some easy to heat up food. Their BBQ ribs are pretty darn good as are a lot of the other selections.

                1. re: zuriga1

                  If you do go to M&S try the Macaroni Cheese and Beef Ragu.
                  It's solved the age old quandary of having to decide if you want ragu or cheese on your macaroni. Now you can have both.
                  It's damn tasty by BTW, but whatever you do don't look at the calorie info.

                  1. re: zuriga1

                    I'm also an American living over here now (are there any natives here?!), and I think, for a non-Brit, a visit to M&S would be fascinating. I remember it being so when I first came over here. It's such an iconic British shop! (There's an excellent book called Watching the English, where the anthropologist author suggests you can tell what social class an English person is in by what they buy at M&S.)

                    If I lived where there wasn't a Covered Market-type place within walking distance, I'd probably spend a lot of money at Marks and Sparks.

                    1. re: Palladium

                      "(There's an excellent book called Watching the English, where the anthropologist author suggests you can tell what social class an English person is in by what they buy at M&S.)"

                      Surely Marks & Sparks doesn't allow the working classes into their shops.

                      1. re: Harters

                        I guess the M&S vibe isn't my thing. Apologies for deriding it.

                        I'm partial to checking out places like H mart, wing yip, and r garcia, to find foods I'm unfamiliar with or more authentic than the comparables available in my local waitrose.

                        All that said, Selfridges and Harrods food halls are so great.

                        1. re: brokentelephone

                          I guess the thing about M&S is that it offers some foods with which visitors to Britain aren't familiar. When M&S was still in business in Canada, it was the only place in my hometown that carried Christmas pudding, Jaffa cakes, Turkish delight, frozen steak and kidney pies etc, sherbet fountains, crisps in British-market flavours, which are relatively uncommon in regular Canadian supermarkets, so the Marks & Spencer food items were authentic British treats we couldn't find elsewhere.

                          It all depends on perspective.

                2. re: brokentelephone

                  BT - M&S are pretty good for some things. Their Crumpets are especially good - very thick with a good flavour. I agree about the ready meals, for me, expensive and whilst convenient never a temptation. However, if you are selective they do have some really good traditional British foods like biscuits and certain baked goods (scotch pancakes are another).

                  And is the wine cheap? I thought it was slightly above the norm for supermarkets reflecting its better quality buying and probably represents better value than many of the other Supermarkets (although Waitrose specials are genuine and I think better)

                  1. re: PhilD

                    Mostly I meant they only sell their own wines so you're limited to reasonably budget offerings. Not that I spend a great deal more on most bottles, but my elitist douchebaggery forces me to seek out bottles from small producers recommended by the informed staff at my local oddbins (aka genteel alcoholics)

              3. If you have time during your week, take the short train trip to London and explore some of the markets there too. It's a foodie heaven.

                1. I haven't been to Oxford for a number of years, but there used to be a covered market which used to sell mainly food stuff. In fact, a quick google tells me it is still very much there and they do still have food and drink.


                  If you fancy a pub lunch, then seek out the "Turf Tavern". Not easy to find

                  1. I am convinced that M&S food relies a great deal for custom on it's long-standing reputation. It's perceived as the best so people assume it is and then there's a self-fulfilling prophecy going on.

                    Personally, whenever I compare it, I find it lacklustre and behind the times. And yes I'm talking about the food offering.

                    It's resting on its laurels and they're getting tired.

                    I much prefer Waitrose (no affiliation) for a wider range of both supermarket own-brand and branded products.

                    Tesco (and also Asda and Morrisons) are also good supermarkets, aim at a lower budget than Waitrose, though these days all have fine and budget ranges.

                    Not a huge fan of Sainsbury's, I find their quality (and pricing) very inconsistent.

                    And of course, local markets are great too.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Kavey

                      Must admit that I buy clothes at Marks (yes, I'm a well established middle class wrinkly) but food rarely. Waitrose is good but I find it impossibly expensive (yes, I'm a pensioner). Most of my food shopping is at Sainsbury which is, literally, just up the road.

                      1. re: Harters

                        Waitrose is definitely more for many things but I'm often surprised by Sainsbury's prices. I went in a few months ago looking for the cheapest stewing beef, any cut really. Was significantly more per kilo than Waitrose beef cheeks which I adore. Likewise, went in for some fresh fruit to make up a gift fruit basket and was astonished by prices for melons, pineapples etc. which were much less in both Waitrose and Tesco (not to mention my local Turkish grocery shops).
                        Also, I find the Waitrose Essential range is good quality, and fairly priced, though not as cheap as Tesco/Sainso's cheapest.

                        1. re: Kavey

                          Sainbury's prices have gone up quite a lot in recent months. The ones closest to us have recently expanded their ready meal sections, which I suppose is to counter the competition from other shops. It's an improvement, but I much prefer what I find in M&S or Waitrose. I'm finding that Tesco fruit and veg is less expensive and better than most Waitrose stores or Sainsbury's. Luckily, we're able to get to almost all the shops very easily so I do what I was told...'you better shop around.'

                          Waitrose has an amazing assortment of meat, pork, chicken products.. if only they didn't cost so much more!

                          1. re: Kavey

                            Waitrose has the best reductions - try shopping mid afternoon, you can get loads of stuff half price to stick in the freezer.

                      2. Thanks guys - this is all good information to have. We're planning a day and night in London, and day trips to either Brighton or Cornwall, and maybe one other place, but not sure yet. Any other restaurant recs for fun and casual meals? We aren't on a fine dining budget, but like to eat (and drink) as well as we can.

                        Also, and I know I could Google this, but for a more boots-on-the-ground POV, what are the customary tipping practices? I don't want to spark a fair-wage debate, but more than anything I don't want to be the typical Ugly American.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: NonnieMuss

                          A lot of places now include a service charge of 12.5%. If they don't, it's pretty usual to leave a 10% tip - much unlike America. And don't ask for the check..ask for the bill. :-)

                          Cornwall is a bit far for a day trip. But if you go, Padstow is a nice destination with lots of good eating. Margie's is casual and good for one.

                          1. re: NonnieMuss

                            As zuriga points out, many places now add a service charge. It is always entirely discretionary and it replaces the old cash tip. Nothing further is expected. You'll find that, in the south east, service charge is usually 12.5%. In the rest of the country, the norm is 10%. If there is a service charge, the menu will state this explicitly. If not, then a cash tip of the same % is traditional, although many folk tip much less, if at all.

                            She's also right about Cornwall not being practical for a day trip. One way drive time Oxford-Padstow is 4.5 hours. Oxford- Brighton is a two hour drive. If it was me, I'd be spending time around the Cotswolds, rather than either of those trips - we have some lovely countryside round there.

                            And one minor correction, it's Margot's in Padstow, not Margie's.

                            1. re: Harters

                              Thanks for the correction, John.

                            2. re: NonnieMuss

                              12% is normal. It can vary between 10% and 15% but 15% only for exceptionally good service.

                              And if it's genuinely appalling, and I do mean appalling, then it IS ok to leave nothing. I am not alone in refusing to tip when service is actively horrendous.

                            3. Okay, so now what is one thing I should absolutely eat while I'm there?

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: NonnieMuss

                                Probably the Oxford sausage. I think it's the only product specifically connected with the city.

                                Frank Cooper's Oxford marmalade would be worth a try but it hasnt been made in the city since the 1960s.

                                1. re: NonnieMuss

                                  I've had some great English breakfasts at B+Bs in Oxford. I realize there are many great English breakfasts throughout England, but it is a meal Oxford usually does well. I can't think of any lunches or dinners I've had in Oxford that were distinctively Oxonian. I could have had a similarly good lunch or dinner at any reasonably good restaurant in a smaller English city (most recently Cambridge and Exeter).

                                  I usually stick to independently-run restaurants serving English food and Indian food (when I've had enough English food) when I'm in Oxford.

                                  I realize Harters mentions the Oxford sausage. I've visited Oxford several times, and I don't think I've ever ordered an Oxford sausage, or noticed one on a menu. That being said, I probably don't tend to seek out sausages, anyhow, so maybe I just didn't notice it because it isn't something I'd go out of my way to order.

                                  While I haven't seen either on any Oxford restaurant menus, you might want to look for Oxford Sauce and Oxford Pudding. http://greatbritishkitchen.co.uk/the-...

                                  You might also want to try Banbury Cakes, since Banbury is located quite close to Oxford.

                                  Please report back, to let us know about your Oxford food experience.:-)

                                  1. re: prima

                                    David John (http://www.oxford-coveredmarket.co.uk...) in the Covered Market sells Oxford sausages.

                                2. Thanks to all for the advice - I'm getting excited and starting to plan my packing, etc. Now two dumb questions that will surely irritate everyone: 1. Can I get Diet Coke? Or is it Coke Light? 2. Do they sell Michelob Ultra there? I know, I KNOW local beers are better, etc., but I don't metabolize alcohol well or normally, and Ultra is about the only thing that doesn't destroy me if I have more than one. Please believe I will be trying the local stuff as well, but I'm just wondering if it's available.

                                  8 Replies
                                  1. re: NonnieMuss

                                    Yes, you can get Diet Coke, it's just called Diet Coke. And there are the various Coke Zero, caffeine free variations. Ick.

                                    Not a clue on the Michelob Ultra, never heard of/ tried it.

                                    1. re: Kavey

                                      Thanks. I pine for Diet Coke when I'm away from home.

                                    2. re: NonnieMuss

                                      I no longer drink alcohol so may not be the best perosn to ask, but I can't recall seeing Michelob in the supermarkets. There are American beers - mainly Budweiser (although the Czech version is probably more common).

                                      1. re: NonnieMuss

                                        Haven't seen Michelob Ultra in any of the supermarkets in Oxford; I tend not to drink American (Canadian?) beers, but as far as I remember, I've only seen Budweiser and maybe Coors.

                                        1. re: NonnieMuss

                                          Mich Ultra ain't available....lightest lager is definitely Becks Light at 2.5% alcohol which is far lower than even Mich Light. They definitely sell Coors Light at bigger supermarkets which is 4%.

                                          You may want to try a low alcohol ale -- you can easily find a real cask ale around 2.8% which are likely more enjoyable than a light lager.

                                          Lots of pubs will have low alcohol ales on tap as well, worth asking if you're keen.

                                          1. re: brokentelephone

                                            BT's advice is sound. Many traditional English beers and bitters are around 3% and the information is generally available (does it have to be displayed by law?). The darker beers can be stronger at 5% plus with some of the bigger brews getting up to 8%+. Lagers are deceptive, the mass produced ones don't taste of much but often have quite high alcohol contents of 5%+

                                          2. re: NonnieMuss

                                            Don't forget to try the excellent ciders available. It's what I'm really looking forward to.

                                            1. re: jammy

                                              Although English cider is usually 7 to 8% alcohol so pretty lethal to even the most hardened drinkers (and I mean the stuff from the poly barrels or flagons not the mass produced stuff in bottles or on tap). That said does Oxford have any cider pubs? They are usually found in Somerset or Herefordshire.

                                          3. Special thanks to everyone for the advice. I got back on Friday and had a lovely time. While the M&S prepared foods didn't thrill me, I bought their teas, cookies, and sauces for gifts. Tesco was fun, but always so crowded it felt like an episode of Supermarket Sweep just getting in and out without being trampled. I never did find any thin watery American light beer, but sampled several excellent ciders. I found one of the best goat cheeses I've ever had at the covered market - darn customs laws would not allow me to smuggle any home. We splurged one night and ate at Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa in London, which was an amazing meal and experience. I'm not a person who would generally be persuaded to try beef tartare, but I couldn't stop eating it! I always thought of him as the guy who comes to the USA to tell us we're fat, so it was such a surprise to have such an experience. Thanks again guys!