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The covered Market is a Victorian shopping area in the centre of Oxford. It can be accessed from the High St., Market St., or through the Golden Cross Arcade in Cornmarket St. It was originally established in the 16th century in order to remove the ‘untidy mess and unsavoury stalls’ from the Oxford streets. Originally it housed only butcher’s shops but eventually had a variety of food stalls.
The market has changed quite dramatically in recent years. It used to house almost only food shops, the majority supplying the kitchens of the University colleges but in more recent years many of the traditional shops have given way to a variety of different businesses, all independents I think, but many are still very food related. Whichever entrance you use the aroma of food, fresh or cooked or cooking greets you and it is impossible to leave without being tempted by something.
I have a soft spot for the covered market because not only is it a lovely part of Oxford’s history but I used to work in the market for a while and absorbed the atmosphere from the inside. I worked in a traditional butcher’s right in the centre of the market, sadly it is no longer there having become a victim of the high rents that the trendier shops can afford and a picture framer now occupies the tiny shop. There was friendly rivalry between the many butchers who worked there and a certain snobbery regarding which colleges were supplied. College chefs regularly visited to discuss menus and delivery to colleges was a bit of a treat as they usually offered a tasty morsel as a matter of course if you timed it right. The market also has, or did have its own language, backchat, often employed to discuss some attractive young lady passing though. ‘Kool the namow!’ was the cry that went out if a tasty bit of stuff was around.
~~~ Specialist Food Shops ~~~
The covered Market has a good variety of traditional shops including butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, and a bakery. Several of the food shops have Oxford specialities including Oxford sausages, Oxford Lardy cake, Local rare breed meats and also the now world famous Oxford Blue cheese. Modern shoppers used to the sanitary conditions and shrink wrapped cuts of meat of the supermarkets might find the carcasses hanging outside the butcher’s shops distasteful but regardless of how it is packaged this is how all meat begins.
A couple of the Butchers are worthy of note: firstly there is R.R. Alden & Sons who have been there since 1793 and originally owned half the market. Just one shop remains now and they are one of the countries longest trading butchers. They specialise in rare-breed meats, including pork from Oxford
Sandyback pigs, Longhorn beef from Christchurch meadows, and lamb from local Oxford Down sheep. They are also renowned sausage-makers and still follow the shops original recipes, including the famed Oxford Sausage, which they claim to have invented.
Then there is M. Feller, Son and Daughter, that’s a bit different isn’t it? Feller’s have been very successful since they started in the market in 1979 they have adapted to public demand and have established themselves as a specialist organic butcher and have won the Organic Retailer of the Year award for meat. They also offer free delivery on orders over £15 which overcomes the problem of carrying meat around town. Feller’s have a web site with information on their range of organic meats and price lists. See http://www.mfeller.co.uk/index.htm The Oxford Cheese company originally only supplied the University but now has what must be one of the best cheese shops in the UK. It specialises in farmhouse cheeses – mostly unpasteurised and sourced direct from the producer, wherever possible. The staff know their business inside out and can recommend cheeses suitable for any occasion and you get to taste it. At Christmas queues are so long they stretch out into the road which says something about the superb quality. The Oxford cheese Company is home to the now world famous Oxford blue Cheese which is simply one of the best cheeses I have ever tasted. This is what their website says about it:
Oxford Blue is made entirely by hand to our specifications in a leading Stilton dairy. The World Encyclopedia of Cheese describes Oxford Blue -`When ripe, the cheese is a luscious creamy blue with distinct but not strong blue flavour. Aromatic and spicy, it has a hint of dark chocolate and white wine, with tarragon on the finish.”
If you can’t visit the shop Oxford Blue is available by mail order or from their rather basic web site at http://www.oxfordcheeseco.fooduk.com/default.htm
Entering the Market from Market St you will be greeted by the gorgeous aroma of rich freshly ground coffee emanating from Cardew & Co. a specialist coffee shop. In addition to the fine coffees they also sell coffee making accessories and spares for traditional coffee making machines.
Palms Delicatessen has also been around for as long as I remember and must have been Oxford’s first deli. The tiny shop is crammed to overflowing with unusual foods from all over the world. Both fresh and storecupbourd food including marinades, pastas in an infinite variety of sizes, liqueurs and deliciously different stuff is available and is a must visit for me for the wide range of Turkish delight and choccies it stocks at Christmas.
The Cake shop are cake decorators and you can watch the skilled cake decorators at work through the window producing gorgeous concoctions for weddings and other special occasions. These are obviously made to order but they also have a few cakes on sale along with everything you could possibly want to make and decorate your own cakes.
Fasta Pasta is an Italian deli crammed with tempting goodies. They specialise in fresh pasta and sauces, a wonderful array of the best olives in town and mounds of wonderfully different freshly baked breads. This is a shop I just cannot resist on any visit to the market. They also do delicious sandwiches.
The tempting smell of triple chocolate cookies baking will get you if you enter the market from High St. Ben’s cookies is only a tiny stall but it packs a powerful punch on the senses. Large, sticky and sinfully stuffed with wickedness the cookies are a dieter’s nightmare – be warned.
~~~ Cafes and Take aways ~~~
There are quite a few sandwich bars and places to eat in the market and the place is small enough to quickly browse which you are most tempted by. Cafes include:
The Alpha Bar is a recent addition to the Market’s take away and café scene. Specialising in vegetarian and vegan foods it serves very ‘healthy’ foods, salads and smoothies. It can cater for special dietry need such as gluten free and allergies. As part of the same company as the Oxford cheese company I’m sure it must be good.
For those of the opposite tendency Brown’s Café should suit. Brown’s is the only surviving café of the original three in the Market. Here you can get mugs of tea to wash down a traditional greasy bacon butty, fry up or slices of toast.
Sofi de France a French/Mediterranean café take away using nice fresh ingredients.
Georgina’s is a tiny café which is the only upstairs place in the market. Popular and trendy (hence a bit pricy) it serves wholesome food on wooden plates. Choose to spy on the cake makers opposite from here if you don’t want to be too blatant.
~~~ Other Specialist shops in the market ~~~
There is a traditional cobbler’s shop which used to be really good but is now horribly expensive. There are two florists, two jewellers, a secondhand bookshop, a hat shop which sells exclusive and interesting hats, a card shop selling unusual and different cards, A South American crafts shop and a couple of odds and ends gift shops.
C. H Brown and son established in 1890 are rather a strange addition to the market shops. One wouldn’t think there was a great deal of demand for saddles in the middle of Oxford but the shop is a showplace for the saddle fitting business which is out of the centre. The shop stocks other things such as leather bags and wallets wicker baskets, country clothing such as Barbour and country accessories. See http://www.saddledoctors.co.uk/
The Oxford Engraver not only cuts keys, engraves on gifts and trophies but also has some lovely pewter gifts including stunning Lord of the Rings goblets and glasses.
Levett’s Pet shop is another long standing resident of the market but gone are the halcyon days of my childhood when it would have been impossible to visit town without a visit to this pet shop. I would have been happy to stand all day with my nose pressed to the window admiring the adorable puppies or kittens if there were any but more often the bunnies and hamsters on display.
~~~ Fashion and Clothes ~~~
There are at least three shoe shops in the market selling original boots and shoes, one of which stocks a nice range of cowboy style boots and hats etc. There are a few casual clothes shops, jeans etc and several ‘Nothing’ shops. Two Foot Nothing sells trendy childrens clothes, Next to Nothing up market hippy inclined clothes and a excellent range of amusing T shirts and Nothing Design Knitwear sells original hand made jumpers. There is also a tiny accessories shop, which could have been the original Claires has nice cheap scarves and scunchies etc.
~~~ The Golden Cross Arcade ~~~
Finally, I just thought I’d mention the Golden Cross Arcade which is the entrance to the market from Cornmarket because it is easily overlooked, even by residents.
The Golden Cross arcade is a small picturesque courtyard of shops and cafes located in what used to be a traditional coaching inn. The present buildings date back to the 15th century and were host to Shakespeare, who performed plays in the courtyard, and the Oxford martyrs were also held here prior to their execution. According to a sign on the wall, there was an inn here first in 1182 so it’s all quite ancient. Several old wall paintings have been discovered and some parts are on view in the Pizza Express, the only eating establishment in the arcade which also has a pleasant cafe area to chill in with nice sofas and music.
The small shops here include smart Italian boutiques for men and women, Neals Yard health food shop and separate Neal’s Yard Remedies shop stocking herbs etc. Neal's Yard Remedies shops are staffed by trained personnel and stock an extensive range of complementary medicines, including homoeopathic remedies, essential oils and herbs. See http://www.nealsyardremedies.com/
Raphaels sells fine leather goods including some gorgeous bags. The Tea house stocks interesting and exotic teas and teapots. There are several other small shops in this area but these change ownership quite frequently so each visit may turn up another surprise.