In the first of our 'Food Town Britain' series, we hitch a lift to Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and find a thriving food scene.
Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life." But what if Johnson knew there was a place just 25 minutes from Kings Cross, surrounded by beautiful countryside, where you could eat locally sourced produce made by people who were serious about their food? A place where it doesn’t take six months to get a table?
Had he been so informed, Johnson would probably have said, "When a man is tired of London, he could take the train to Hitchin and still get home in time to put a wash on." So, whether you end up here on a planned micro-break; as part of a staycation; or you simply fell asleep and woke up at Hitchin Station, there's an abundance of foodie places you could head to.
Hitchin’s food trail
First, have a butchers at the Blue Otter Trail, devised by local restaurants working together to promote Hitchin's ever-expanding food scene.
Pop into Blue Otter Wines (main picture above, and left here) where the idea for the trail originated, and have a chat with Paul - he knows a lot about wine. But not in a 'mmm, you can really taste the terroir' sort of way; he’ll happily advise customers who just want something decent for a tenner. Paul also sells everything from rhubarb vodka to Indian whiskies and raspberry gin, and most of his stuff is UK-sourced. There's a few quirky items too, such as the Siberian vodka stored in a mammoth’s horn - you have to see it to believe it.
You’ll need more supplies. What if you get stuck here? Around the corner is Halsey’s Delicatessen and Tea Rooms, a historic food landmark since 1854. It's bustling with generations of locals and serves a ridiculous range of locally-sourced, homemade food... Scotch eggs, spanokopita, hot roast pork rolls with stuffing, crackling and apple sauce. The staff are always friendly but ever-so-slightly out of breath.
Mexican street food
If it’s Saturday, you can wander up Sun Street to Bar Absolute where Matt and Jeff set up Cantina Carnitas – a pop-up Mexican street food affair. They keep it local, sourcing rolls for their chilli cheese dogs and other specials from Hitchin Bakehouse, where local couple Johannah and Nick live out their baking dream. It's a micro-bakery (not an open shop), situated in their home, and the duo frequently knead throughout the night to make time for their day jobs. One of Cantina Carnitas' burritos will likely see you through to dinner, which isn't bad for £4.80.
Speaking of which, you will need your third meal of the day eventually. When Howard and Ellené transformed Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant and revealed it in all its stripped-back 1930s ballroom-esque glory a couple of years ago, it became the talk of the town. It still is. The menu is modern but not pretentious. Visit on a Sunday and you can ‘Host-a-Roast’ with friends or family.
A bed for the night
By now, you’ve had so much fun that the last train home is long gone. You’ve had enough cocktails not to be overly concerned, but are still sober enough to dismiss the idea of sleeping on a park bench.
Family-run Redcoats Farmhouse Hotel and Restaurant is an historic building set in glorious countryside. You likely won’t appreciate that on the journey there, but when you wake up to pleasant green views and their famous full English you’ll soon be feeling fresh as a daisy. They know all about local produce, owner Peter having grown up there. He and chef Ben source rare-breed Red Poll beef from next door, partridges and pheasants are caught from the surrounding countryside, and fresh greens and herbs come from their own kitchen garden.
For elevenses, grab a paper and head to Taste Buds Café, a quaint and Grade II listed building (as are many of Hitchin’s eateries, due to its historic market town status). Everything is homemade, and owner Charlton’s speciality is ‘free-from’ recipes: gluten, wheat, you name it; Charlton will devise a recipe for it.
One for the road
It would be rude not to stop in at The Victoria and The Radcliffe Arms, as they're both on your way back to the station. Victoria and the team at The Vic have worked their socks off to make it the hugely popular ‘community’ pub it is. Knitting and book groups use it as their meeting point, quirky pictures by local artists hang on the walls, they host Monday Supper Clubs, Thursday Pie Nights, Saturday Brunch, and Sunday Lunch. Ingredients are local (including a Halsey’s cheeseboard) and refreshed daily with seasonal favourites. Burgers (including the lamb and goats' cheeseburger) are named after areas of Hitchin.
The Radcliffe Arms features in the 2012 and 2013 Michelin Restaurant Guide, and is a short stroll from the station. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, it could be described as Hitchin’s last attempt to prevent you - or Samuel Johnson for that matter - from leaving.
Do you frequent the eateries of Hitchin? Have you anywhere else to recommend? Talk to us in the comments box below.
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