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Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Cambridge Institution: The Orchard in Grantchester‏

I often tell potential visitors to Cambridge that you can pretty much "do" the city in a day; for all its renown, Cambridge is, after all, a small place - a city by dint of its university rather than, say, size.

A few of the more famous colleges, punting along the backs and a stroll around the mediaeval street layout of the centre and you've covered the main tourist bases of the city.

Moreover, Cambridge is set in the middle of farming country - flat, unwooded, arable land - with not much to see beyond the historic centre and a dining scene that is best described as "pockets of excellence".

If, however, you visit Cambridge and restrict yourself to the historic centre, you will miss out on The Orchard in Grantchester - a Cambridge Institution in a city of Institutions.

The Orchard is best accessed either via Grantchester Meadows, a 2-mile stretch of the river from Newnham to Grantchester with fields and cattle or - if you have the time and energy - by punting there up the river.

Describing itself formally as The Orchard Tea Gardens, it has provided a genteel, quintessentially English form of refreshment to pretty much anyone who is famous and went to Cambridge - from Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf to most of the Monty Python team.

Its origins date back to students at the University making the trip upriver and, arrived at Grantchester, demanding to be brought tea and cakes.

These days the clientele is more the affluent middle-aged and trendy upper-middle class - usually with families - but The Orchard remains true to its aristocratic origins and retains a rustic insouciance to urban sensibilities; the food is hearty and straightforward, the coffee comes in a one-size-fits-all filter variety and the deck chairs are left out in all weathers and bear the marks of the orchard's many feathered visitors.

There is a small indoor seating area with windows looking onto the orchard for when then weather is bad, but the main reason for a visit is to sit out in the orchard itself on a hot summer's day.

There have not been too many of those recently, but the other week we took advantage of the brief Indian Summer and the arrival of guests to make our way out there for lunch.

The menu is straightforward and seems barely to have changed since our first visit over a decade ago; with generous portion sizes and the prospect of cakes to follow, a number of the party opted for a simple carrot-and-coriander soup about which there is little that can be said except that it was a delicious bowl of soup.

And yet, that somehow sums up The Orchard - unashamedly old school, unfussy, well-made food with absolutely no attempt at catching the zeitgeist.

For my own main, I chose at hot-smoked salmon and asparagus quiche that was dense and richly eggy and came served simply with boiled potatoes and salad leaves.

Perhaps The Orchard's one concession to modernity is the ordering system - a hand-held numbered unit flashes when your food is ready and alerts you to look out for the waiting staff coming with a tray of food.

With the savoury food over, we popped back inside for the main event with any trip to The Orchard - tea and cakes.

My staple is always the freshly-made and enormous scones with jam and clotted cream - with a choice of cheese, fruit or plain, they are rich and crumbly and, frankly, better than any shop-bought scone I have ever had. In fact, better than any other scone full-stop.

In the interests of research, I tried a little of the lemon meringue pie that #1 child had ordered - the pastry base was suffused with lemon curd that was sharp and zesty, yet also light; the meringue topping crisp, chewy and dapple-browned.

#2 child's chocolate cake, with chocolate cream and chocolate sprinkle topping was ... well, dense and very chocolatey; a perfect example of what it should be, but not my thing.

Like many of the trappings of an aristocratic lifestyle - sailing, ski-ing or horse-riding especially come to mind - The Orchard is rather basic, quite expensive and very outdoorsy.

But that's how I like it - it has resisted the temptation to become a caricature of itself, an "experience" theme park where you exit through the gift shop; there are no Orchard key fobs or "My friend went to The Orchard and all I got was this stupid t-shirt" t-shirt.

In a decade of dining out, it is our most visited eating place in Cambridge, the one we keep coming back to. Long may it remain.


The Orchard - http://www.orchard-grantchester.com/

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