The Hitchin Post

As Twitter followers will know (well, more than those who follow the randomly updated blog, yes, sorry about that. AGAIN) I travel. A lot. From the early, utterly random first trip I did as a journalist  (well, second, pre-blog days, in another life, I went to the Woodford Reserve distillery), things have escalated considerably. Last year saw me in Japan, Mexico, Texas, Washington DC, Hong Kong, California, Brooklyn, Boston and up and down the Maine coast, Spain, Switzerland, France and a few days in Montana that ended with me singing karaoke with Zac Efron. No, really. 

And so, with that lot in mind, today I'm writing about... Hitchin. No, to be fair, you're right, it doesn't sit easily in that list. I didn't ever see it on an episode of Wish You Were Here, poets have been strangely quiet on the subject and the honeymooners are understandably nowhere to be seen. But, if you'd had the sort of ludicrously entertaining correspondence with self-appointed Hitchin rep Kirsty Favell that I had, you'd have been persuaded too. They're too random and rambling to go into in depth here (one person's random ramblings is enough on this blog, right?) but: a) they made me laugh a lot; and b) made me think I'd met a kindred spirit and what did I have to lose?

The answer to the latter, as it turned out, was "about three hours" after the powerlines that allow trains to travel from Hitchin back to Kings Cross fell down, but that's not important right now. At least I had snacks - an excellent carrot cake and mince pie from local bakery Taste Buds - and good company in the shape of Vogue writer / Toast founder / Maltby Street obergruppenf├╝hrer Miranda York. And, as it happened, surprisingly fond memories of a small town in Hertfordshire that's doing some rather good things in terms of food. They do, however, need to improve their tagline... 

So, on a cold December morning Miranda and I found ourselves in Hitchin. Not that it took a lot of effort frankly: it's all of 20 minutes outside of Kings Cross (well, unless the power goes down) which makes it a very popular commuter belt sort of place. Because of that, and locals who've seen London restaurants and delis and such like, they've headed back to Hertfordshire deciding they'd quite like that sort of variety and quality on their doorstep and a few local entrepreneurs, publicans, hoteliers, chefs and shopkeepers have decided to give them what they want. The results are frequently surprising, charming and - best of all - thriving. 

Kirsty, as Hitchin's self-appointed ambassador, was everything from our welcoming committee to our driver and tour guide, pointing out the interesting local businesses we didn't have time to visit as we headed to our first stop: a full English breakfast at Redcoats

Lots of places bang on about local and seasonal to the point of cliche. Owner Peter Butterfield didn't use that expression but, as he told us tales of the house, how the 15th Century property had evolved and been extended over the centuries, what it was like growing up in such remarkable surroundings and how they'd come to make it into a hotel, he pointed at certain things on the plate and explained where nearby they'd come from. Later he pointed out a field opposite explaining that, basically, is where they keep their beef while it's breathing and in cow form. This isn't local as a hook, or because it's "on message", it's local because,well, that's the way it's done. It's nice.  

Next stop was the town centre - which is quite pretty, watery and, apparently, the home of assorted street food carts and such like on Saturdays. It's also the more permanent home of Blue Otter Wines where owner Paul was on hand to meet us and provide glasses of The King's Ginger. If you've never had it, think Stones, only better. If you have, you'll understand why I bought a bottle. I usually have to head to Berry Bros to get one, so it was a delight to find one elsewhere a week before Christmas, as it makes a blooming marvellous whisky mac. It's also good with other things, like lemonade or, indeed, a straw. They also had a cracking selection of wines and spirits, promise "any flavour of vodka you like, as long as it's rhubarb" and, according to their Twitter feed, are home to the comfiest armchair in Hitchin. I'd like them enormously for that alone, but this a quality business, and exactly the quirky little drinks shop you'd like on your doorstep. Lucky old Hitchin, I thought, and not for the first time that day... and not for the last time, either. 

A short walk later, more money was exchanged for fine goods in Halsey's Deli. It sounds snobby to keep saying things were surprising but you simply don't expect to find that range of cheese, that range of loose leaf teas and coffees, brilliant little edible stocking fillers and such like in a small market town in Hertfordshire. 

So, stomach stuffed with pork products and eggs, pockets stuffed with cheese and my bag stuffed with a bottle of King Edward's favourite tipple it was obviously time for lunch. Hey, you have to do these things when you're a professional... Fortunately, Kirsty took us on a short tour of the town first which helped burn off possibly as many as 10 calories. There are the things in Hitchin you'd expect to see in any market town these days - closing down sales, a branch of Zizzi's, a Pizza Express, a very strange busker - but, actually, the chains don't dominate and there's a distinct sense of personality here. 

Our destination this time was a restaurant in a converted horrible nightclub. Apparently. It's the sort of description that fills you with dread... and obviously the sort of thing Hitchin surprises you with once again. The stairs bring you to a long bar, a spacious airy room, a comfortable (and thriving) well lit restaurant and a buzzing open kitchen. It's called Hermitage Road and, frankly, you could drop it into Islington tomorrow and it would succeed. The menu is simple, with (at lunchtime) assorted small plate options and a main list biased towards salads, risottos and fish. Or pretty much all of the above in the case of my smoked haddock, chive and horseradish risotto with a poached egg. That's my kind of lunching and the execution was terrific: bite - in terms of texture and that little "wa-hey" thing horseradish does - big flavours and a lovely, silky, vibrant egg yolk to bring it all together and make it look even prettier. You know the mantra that was rattling around my head at this point, of course. 

Dessert was shunned because we know what was coming next: cakes, courtesy of former army catering man Charlton Vincent. After retiring from the forces, Charlton attempted to work for a large catering group and decided it wasn't for him: there are only so many years of being told what to do anyone should take, right? Salvation came in the form of Taste Buds, a sandwich shop and bakery that, apparently, was decidedly average, like so many local sandwich shops and bakeries. It's no longer decidedly average. Cakes are made on site - many with low sugar and other dietary requirements taken care of - sandwiches use fresh ingredients, with fillings that are prepped and cooked from scratch each day using Fair Trade ingredients wherever possible. If this was anywhere near your office, you'd be there every day. Actually, you'd want it about 15 minutes from your office as that way you could sort of justify having a cake as well... 

Do I sound like I've drunk the Kool Aid in Hitchin? Obviously Kirsty knew my tastes and was guiding us through the finer places but when there are five this fine in such a small radius, it's hard not to sound like a newly converted Hitchin zealot. Seriously, five great food places is a better average than I found for bits of North London when I did the Square Meal chapters last year. Lucky old Hitchin? Yes, to some extent. But clever old Hitchin is probably more accurate. Well done chaps. Keep up the good work. 


Hitchin said…
There's plenty more places that we didn't even get a chance to visit. And you'd be welcome back anytime. Because Hitchin* bloody loves you Neil R Davey.

*These are not necessarily the views of Hitchin as a whole, but rather those of a self-appointed rep/local nutter.
Unknown said…
Great blog. I couldn't agree more about Tastebuds. How come you didn't visit Hitchin Market? There's a great chutney stall in there
Kavey said…
Ooh wonder if she's related. I know we're Favelle with an E on the end but Pete's granny added that to make them sound posher, so we were Favell not long ago.
I grew up in Luton, and a dear friend lives in Hitchin, and she tells me it's definitely the nicest place in the whole area for decent restaus, cafes and independent stores.
I really ought to go exploring.
Anonymous said…
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Dyelog PR said…
Great blog!!

You may want to attend the launch of Milk Tea & Pearl's new shop next week:

This is a nice post in an interesting line of content.Thanks for sharing this article, great way of bring such topic to discussion.
Anonymous said…
Excellent as always Mr Davey..please blog some more...
Some one once said i have a super dooper pass the sauce... ; ]

Cheers Sooty..
Gwilson said…
Wow, how I wish I can go to the places you have been. Travel and blogging is surely a nice job.

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