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Jun 12, 2013 06:39 AM

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.