St Albans Christmas Market

Best Part: Christmas!


Christmas time is here, come and celebrate. Come and celebrate at a succession of Swiss-style chalets filled with expensive arts and crafts projects. It seems that we cannot be satisfied with the large number of traditions already associated with the festive period and so need to keep on loading more and more on like some sort of Holiday Tradition Buckeroo (Sandwiches! Jumpers! Far too many Christmas movies on Channel 5!). One of the latest, in this country at least, is the Christmas Market. Long established on the continent these have now started springing up all over the country, with varying degrees of success. I am not an expert on the subject so cannot proclaim where St Albans sits in the league table (although that sounds like a great idea for a blog!), but based on it’s own merits I would say it is…. alright, I suppose.


There is a limit to what you can actually stick in a stall at a Christmas Market, certainly if you are going to include enough of a mark-up to make it worth your while, so it tends to be booze, cheese, olive oil and wooden things. It’s quite charming but I don’t recall ever having bought anything that wasn’t for immediate consumption. One new addition this year is a nice central hub where artists can play whilst children indulge in various activities. It gives the place a nice focal point and they pipe the music around the place. It is a very scenic location, just under the Abbey, and walking around at night with the lights twinkling can give you a nice hit of Christmassyness. During the day when it’s largely empty… less so.


The main dining options are centred around a separate ‘food court’ annex. The options are Hog Roast, Wurst, Crepes, Toasties and Chips. There was also a Mulled Wine cart, but he was not mulling on our visit. There are a few benches and tables to sit at, though you have to get a bit friendly with your fellow shoppers if you want to sit down. Which I suppose is in the spirit of the season. Between us we managed to visit most of the stalls, though we only got water from the ‘Toast Office’.


Owing to me having consumed no less than 5 different pork products for my dinner on the previous evening I decided not to go for my usual standard of a big German sausage. Instead I got a Pulled Pork Bap. Yes, I know. Anyway, the pork itself was pretty good, though there wasn’t much of it, and it worked surprisingly well with the stuffing. I would advise against the onion though. There were large chunks and close to raw so they overpowered the combo.


The brie and chutney crepe seemed to be very difficult to consume by my ham-fisted wife. She gets overwhelmed with street food (see our review of the St. Albans food festival 2015). It is very tricky for her to take the food handed over by the vendor, pay with the other, get a drink with a third hand, gesture to her husband with the fourth, take napkins with two spare fingers and then drop her bag, ukulele and temper at the table. Yes, she prefers table service. However the crepe was well made and filled with contrasting creamy and piquant flavours. If you enjoy watching huge crepes being made with finesse it would be worth hanging around and watching the masters at work. All in all a good choice.


We got a large portion of chips to share, so large in fact that they drew gasps of admiration from our tablemates which is always gratifying. There was a mix of curly and sweet potato with a couple of toppings. As their consignment of American cheese had disappeared somewhere in the mid-Atlantic we went for cheddar and onion rings. I’m not a huge sweet potato guy so planned to leave them to my companion but they seemed to have absorbed the lions share of the cheese. Overall they were filling, and not offensive.


But you don’t go to a Christmas Market for amazing food. Well, not this one at least. There is a reasonable range of choices and they will give you the energy to trudge round the vintry gardens once more if that’s what you desire. Manage your expectations and the Season’s Greetings to you all!



Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

Best Part: Being in a pub on a Monday

So first of all, to clear up a misapprehension, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is actually pronounced Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, rather than Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Hopefully this will avoid you looking foolish when discussing it with your learned friends.


We visited the Cocks on my birthday, following a lovely if slightly drizzly walk to Gorehambury. As such, we had worked up quite an appetite by the time we arrived, and were eagerly waiting for the doors to open and let us in. On the other hand I was aware that I needed to leave a level of room for my birthday dinner treat that evening (KFC).


So we were after something that was both light but filling, and surprisingly were both able to get something that fulfilled these paradoxical demands. I went for the hot buffalo chicken wings. In deference to my later chicken plans I only had 6, but actually that was more than enough. Clearly the chickens had been working out as they were hefty wings. The saucy crispiness contrasted well with the cooling blue cheese dip, and I was happy to really go for it despite the saucy face and fingers I ended up with.


My birthday companion had a warming slightly spicy pumpkin soup. She was very excited by the croutons which seemed to be more like cheese on toast. Wow. That’s basically two lunches in one go. Naturally she didn’t end up keeping that cheese on toast to herself because  I felt I needed some too.


We shared a very generous and crispy bowl of chips, and this together with a starter of a bag of crisps (we were very hungry when we arrived) was more than enough. This meant that the bill was more than reasonable despite me indulging in two pints of their lovely house ale (a dark affair that made the afternoon shopping for trousers maybe a little trying). Mrs Midweek Lunch doesn’t like drinking in the middle of the day because too many people rely on her organisational skills so she went for the “Nanny state” low alcohol beer by Brew Dog. This was brilliant because it actually tasted like real beer. We have tried to buy some since but it doesn’t seem easy to find, she will just have to get drunk at lunch time after all!

Despite it being a Monday (which is a slight stretch on the concept of midweek I confess) the Fighting Cocks was buzzing through a combination of graduates celebrating and a well to do wedding party. This gave us much amusement from determining the poshest shade of trouser, but even without this the pub has character and atmosphere to spare. Long may this St Albans landmark maintain it’s mastery on the banks of the stinky lake.

And it is definitely the oldest pub in England.


The Exquisite Peacock Emporium

Best Part: Their food and pricing, but not their spelling or lighting.


We first thought of visiting The Exquisite Peacock Emporium in its first fortnight of business. That would have been a great idea for reporters with their fingers of the pulse. However, looking through the window I was intimidated by the dark environment. Time has passed and two followers have asked us to review it so here we go.


Décor and Vibe

This is a very interesting establishment because it fuses industrial theme with the “sit at my kitchen table while I cook” sort of homey vibe. Of course being British, no one wanted to be conspicuous enough to sit at that large table so they filled up the small perimeter tables instead. Eventually one lone lady eater came in and there was no where else to sit but at this table for 14. Awkward! She looked very self conscious. In this front part of the café, most of the diners seemed to be female but were of mixed ages. I saw two business men buying lunch to take away and they were excited by the Chicken Tikka Panini as was my own business man companion. The back of the café was more of a lounge affair with plush seats and low level coffee tables (a fashion that is very bad for the digestion of ones lunch). It was full of pre-school children and their tired mothers, grabbing a precious tea or coffee with their similarly frazzled Mummy friends. The children were welcome and happy. Gosh if me and my friends had this place 3 or 4 years ago I know we would have used it. However, I am no longer in this demographic and I wasn’t quite at home in either area, in spite of being a female in her thirties. Possibly this was because my earlier hunch proved right – it was far too dark and I felt stressed out. Possibly this was also because wherever I looked there was a sign demanding that I should “Love Koffee”. I don’t. I hate coffee but not as much as the misspelling on these brainwashing signs.


The Food

There were not many vegetarian sandwiches on the menu. In fact I believe there were two unimaginative ones. Fortunately I was in the mood for a cheese and pickle baguette which turned out to be very pleasant. The pickle to cheese ratio was correct. To improve on this already good sandwich I would encourage the management to source a crumblier richer cheddar or perhaps a creamy Lancashire for variety.


Mr Midweek Lunch was very happy with his business-critical tikka panini. The combination of chicken tikka and cheddar cheese is not a usual one, but it was fusion-tastic. And really, can’t we all learn something from the way Italian, Indian and English ingredients go together in perfect harmony on his sandwich. There were enough options (for those who are prepared to have a little meat in their sandwich) that he would happily come back to work his way through the options. The milkshakes are pretty good too, and a lot cheaper than most of the options in town. What’s more, it all came with obliging promptness.


We shared a sticky toffee muffin. There were a lot of muffins in the food display which is very enticing to people who like them. Ours was pretty amazing. The toping was thick and crunchy, almost like Ice Magic if you remember such a thing. Muffins can be overwhelming at times so it would have been nice to also see some smaller baked goods. There were cookies but these were similarly large. I expect the idea is to share them with a friend in the “relax in my kitchen” environment. Most people seemed to be doing this.


My tea was of a good quality but I have reservations about the way it was served. I prefer to be given nice loose leaf in a pot and the transparency of this plastic pot was a novelty that might appeal to some diners. I really liked the cute little milk bottle and I approved of the cup and saucer. However it was a very heavy cup and saucer. If you are going to choose the cup and saucer option it needs to be thin, preferably bone china. If you are going for thick china or earthen ware, you either need to serve “Koffee” in it or it needs to be in the shape of a mug. The cup was far too heavy even before the tea went in to cope with the aerodynamics of its intended use.


Would I visit again? I wouldn’t rush but yes at some point in the future for the reasonably priced tasty food. However I would take a torch.