Mill Road is, without exception, the most diverse and cosmopolitan road in Cambridge with its lion’s share of eclectic independent shops and restaurants. Many stand out, but one that I think takes center stage is Fantasia; it’s a vibrant pop-up boutique that lights up Mill Road with an eye wateringly beautiful display of colour, fabrics and designs that spill onto the pavement. (more…)
Have you seen what’s at No 1 Arbury Road and noticed the picturesque store front and the flowers and plants that spill onto the pavement? This is the latest independent hardware store to set up in Cambridge, called simply Cam Home and Garden.
Entering Cam Home and Garden takes you over a comforting step down memory lane; it offers the very best of old-fashioned customer service and a fantastic selection of items found in a local hardware shop reminiscent of shops from yesteryear. Robin Standring, the manager, greets me wearing a t-shirt with four candles on.
Robin together with his assistant Steve Winn bring over 100 years of retail experience. Steve, retired after long-service at Cutlacks on Mill Road but was tempted back into part-time work by Robin. They now enjoy serving and getting to know their customers in West Chesterton and providing welcome advice as, between them, there is little they don’t know about gardening, home renovation and beer and wine-making. But, Robin defaults to Steve – who he refers to as Cambridge aristocracy – and tells his customers; “If you want to know anything about anything, from mops to hops, ask Steve.”
Looking around the shop there’s a wonderful and eclectic mix of beautiful modern, vintage and practical everyday items. Its arrangement lends itself to browsing. Robin says: “We’re really proud to be described as a useful shop in Cambridge. Everything has a use but also looks nice and we stock a range that suits all budgets. We’re perfectly suited for anyone who want to grow their own, make their own as well as get all the essential hardware stuff.”
The shop is bedecked in sentimental decoration, charming knick knacks (not for sale) from Robin’s childhood, as well as interesting locally sourced items such as Cambridge hardwood charcoal and hazel poles from Hardwick woods. The packed shelves stock Che Guevara mugs next to Baby Bio bottles, gorgeous colourful enamel espresso cups and a wide selection of seeds, with useful labels telling you, for example, which ones are great for bees.
Robin has an eye for details and design and so the homely store front reflects the seasonal produce alongside the perennial best sellers. It is no surprise that the shop has been called an Aladdin’s Cave or like stepping into the Tardis. Steve explains that they change seasonally, and rotate stock to reflect this (such as swapping jam-making for chutney-making as the season demands) all the while ensuring that everything remains practical. And in line with their old-fashioned philosophy, their children’s toys only promote outdoor play – no batteries, no screens – just traditional games.
The front of the shop stocks their home and garden range, while the home brew equipment – wine, beer and cider – is found at the back. Craft beers are a big driver in the home brew market today and such is their position as experts in this field they have a home brew club which runs on the 1st Sunday of every month and takes place at Thirsty. It’s great fun, very informal and open to all levels of experience because people learn from each other. The Jamaican food van serves between 4-6pm. What better way to get an introduction to beer-making?
Proudly Robin tells me that the only other place you can get most of the stuff he sells is on the internet, but without the personal. On top of this he goes out of his way to get stuff that you wouldn’t find on the internet which all helps to maintain his loyal and growing customer base.
As with everything about Cam Home and Garden, they want satisfied customers who always get what they come for – from four candles to fork handles – and everything is built from that.
Find out more about Cam Home and Garden here
Every Chinese school child learns Xu Zhi Mo’s 1928 poem, On Leaving Cambridge. Capturing the beauty and romance of Cambridge, it provided a draw to LingLing Peng from her home in Taiwan, as it still does for the scores of Chinese tourists that visit our city every year. LingLing was looking for a place to “play and learn” and inspired by the poem, Cambridge seemed a natural choice.
Studying English at The Studio School on Station Road in 1991, LingLing would often have lunch in the little ‘old-fashioned’ café on the corner, not thinking that 10 years later she would be the owner. Back in the early 90s Cambridge was a poor destination for food lovers, with national food chains prevalent but few innovative independent restaurants and cafés providing any local character. LingLing enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of this little place.
LingLing and Franck met through a mutual friend and with their shared love of food they set up in partnership with a friend, L’Amandier on Burleigh Street in 1994 (now Cote de France) and sold it four years later. Eager for their own place, in 1999 they took a quarter share of the premises above The Bun Shop (now The Cambridge Brew House) where they could create their own menus. As fate would have it, the little café on Station Road became available in 2000. So, taking an extension on their mortgage, Le Gros Franck was opened and has since become one of the City’s most beloved local eateries, as well as the only independent French café in Cambridge
Le Gros Franck is famed for delivering good quality authentic French food (Franck makes monthly visits to France to source the best ingredients) with delicious breakfast and lunchtime menus. Convenient for commuters stopping in for a croissant or espresso on their way to work, it is also a mainstay for a growing community of residents and businesses in the area.
LingLing and Franck have become indivisible from their restaurant, becoming a well-known unit in the City as well as active members of the community. They embrace change and make the most of new and exciting opportunities that the city’s transformation provides, such as the CB1 development and the growing trend around food vans.
CB1 was the catalyst for their second restaurant. When in 2012 they were looking for something new, the accountant and solicitor’s office on the corner of Hills Road and Brooklands Avenue provided the perfect location to take advantage of this burgeoning population. After months of negotiations and fighting off stiff competition (no doubt with the reputation already established through Le Gros Franck), La Maison du Steak was born in 2013. LingLing said:
“The changes around CB1 have been quite monumental but it’s great to be in the heart of it. We’re really proud of the challenging building project we undertook because we transformed a near derelict building to what we have today. Franck took the lead on this, he’s created space that shows off authentic French interiors and individual style. We’ve even used some of the photograph that show the various stages of the project to decorate the walls.”
Just like its sister, La Maison du Steak provides a wonderfully French setting. It lends itself to relaxed family meals or a romantic dinner for two and has quickly become a firm favourite in this part of Cambridge.
LingLing loves food – talking about it, cooking it and of course eating it. So, what better way to share her passion than by bringing it directly to her customers? They now have three food vans. The Saucisse Mon Amour food van is seen regularly on Station Road, its fluttering Taiwanese flag cocking a snoop at the Chinese state while bringing pride to local Taiwanese. “I love to see my customers’ faces when they enjoy my food. And I can do that from my van, where I can’t from my kitchen” says LingLing.
While the Saucisse Mon Amour reflects the French identity of her marriage, LingLing loves to indulge in traditional home cooking, influenced by her mother and share recipes that she grew up with. Her second food van, LingLing’s Steam Kitchen, was set up in 2015. With favourites include her beef dumplings, Taiwanese braised minced pork served with tea egg and tofu stew with plum and miso sauce. It is already a firm favourite both with locals and critics – she won the 2015 Cambridge Food Van of the Year after only being open for three months.
Finally Pull Me Chéri opened in 2016, and is used frequently for Cambridge events such as Enchanted Cinema, Thirsty Riverside, the Cambridge Comedy & Beer Festivals, Mill Road Winter Fair, Thriplow Daffodil Weekend, and a regular monthly pitch in Hitchin street food monthly and outside Thirsty.
LingLing and Franck now employ a diverse team of 20 from the UK and Europe. Indeed, the head chef started as a dish washer: everyone works together as a family. LingLing summarised:
“The staff are the bosses. They run the restaurants, they are important, they take responsibility.” she concludes: “I am so grateful for my wonderful team. It really would be impossible without them.”
LingLing has learnt a lot, but she says the key to running a successful business is to listen; to staff and to customers. That is how we learn the most important lessons.
LingLing was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit: scuseme
The Art of Meat has been recommended to me many times over the years but regrettably I had not ventured beyond my regular butchers to try them out, so I took the opportunity to visit them for the first issue of scuseme … what?
The Art of Meat is tucked away in a quiet corner of Arbury Court, a lovely community focused public square (with plans for redevelopment to create an “urban social square”). Here I met with owner, Jon West, to find out a little more about this much talked about butchers, whose name suggests so much more than just a place to get your lamb chops.
From biotechnology to butchery
Cambridge is world renowned for its strong links with science, so perhaps Jon’s earlier life as a research scientist was not so astounding. That the research involved plant biotechnology and plant genetics, was more of a surprise.
His path into academia was one that many have followed in this city. But after a few years he fancied a change. And what a change it turned out to be. Jon had worked for a year in a butcher’s shop after he left school, and over a pint with old friend Brian Adams, ideas soon led him down a very different path. Brian had owned and run BP Adams Butchers for 18 years, and the new owner wasn’t doing so well, so Jon and his wife Clare made the decision to take over the business. As Jon said:
“We took over the shop on the 4th July 2005, our first child was born on the 15th July & we got a mortgage the following year. It was quite a transformation.”
From flora to fauna: creating the Art of Meat
Jon had an idea of what he wanted to do & achieve from the word go. He knew he was never going to beat supermarkets on price so he would have to beat them on quality & service. Jon said of living and working in Cambridge:
“We’re so lucky here because in East Anglia there’s a whole host of really good independent producers.”
He proudly listed some of the top of the range wholesalers supplying produce such as Dingly Dale Pork, Riverside Beef and several good free range chicken suppliers.
The Art of Meat’s excellent reputation comes from their exceptional quality and service. But the innovative flavours created for their sausages and other meats betrays Jon’s natural scientific flare for experimentation. Naturally all the sausages are made by hand and they have some traditional flavours such herby, Italian and breakfast but they change and introduce new recipes frequently. When Jon shared some of his favourites, it became immediate obvious why the Art of Meat is such an apt name:
- hog roast with pork scratchings and apple
- liquorice all-sorts
- toffee-apple on Bonfire Night with bits of fudge and caramelised apple running through
- Mergertz with paprika, fennel, harissa and cumim.
Jon and his team are always trying new ideas, so no doubt this list will expand. At this point I was introduced to Dylan Carter, who started as an apprentice and has been with them for over 10 years. Dylan is interested in Roman re-enactment and was working on a Roman style burger with fish sauce instead of garam because that is what the Romans would have used and dates, coriander and green peppercorns.
The Art of Meat also makes their own marinades. Their useful website provides great tips for their customers both in terms of cooking and butchery.
Jon has worked hard to meet people in the community who have the same standards as him when it comes to food provenance and quality. He has always been interested in food and he gets deliveries up from Smithfields to provide more top quality and exciting things for people who are really interested in food and cooking.
The success of the business is based, unsurprisingly, on keeping a loyal base of customers happy, and the lessons Jon has learnt over the years and his knowledge of pricing and cuts means that he can keep his prices consistent throughout the year, which makes it much easier for their customers.
Predictably The Art of Meat is very well connected and with the growing popularity of food vans, Jon thinks in part because people can’t afford restaurants – I was not surprised to find out that they supply Steak and Honour, Guerrilla Kitchen and Jalan Jalan to name three of the more renowned new outlets in Cambridge. Jon knows that these people hold quality as dear to their hearts as he does, and with the vibrant street food scene, competition is strong and self-regulating so only the good ones will survive. Those that invest in serving good quality food.
Five people working at The Art of Meat, Jon, Dylan, Aiden Gillett, Clare and Brian Adams who is semi-retired. Find out more about The Art of Meat
Jon’s Top Tip
The thing I’ve learnt with knives is to keep a knife sharp is easy; to make a knife sharp isn’t.
Jon was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, the founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. She has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advise based on her own experiences. For more information please visit: scuseme