The irony that it took an American to remind us of the culinary riches of East Oxford was not lost on me as Charleston born Chapman took us on the enlightening Cowley Road Food Tour.
And what an exciting, interesting, revealing and enjoyable morning it was as Chapman not only introduced us to 20 international food shops, delis and supermarkets lining one of Oxford’s most famous streets, but its incredibly diverse, vibrant and exciting food offerings, as well as the history of Cowley Road, and how it came to be such an internationally foodie mecca.
“To find this variety of shops in New York or London would be something, but in East oxford? I’ve never seen anything like it”
The Cowley Road Food Tour runs on the first Saturday of the month, and in less than a kilometre, you’ll find ingredients from Ghana, Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, Lithuania, Russia, Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Brazil and so much more.
Kicking off outside The Cape Of Good Hope on The Plain, Chapman leads you down Cowley Road, keeping you constantly entertained with anecdotal nuggets about the history and people which bring this cosmopolitan side of Oxford to life, and more importantly the food.
“I had to do something about that – to remind people what they have right here on their doorsteps”
Armed with goodies, outside every shop Chapman plucks an unknown foodstuff from his bag to demonstrate its uniqueness, from African lemons to bergamot Turkish delight, chilli and black bean paste, Cretan honey to marmalade quince paste (which is how marmalade got its name), strange herbs, spices, and fruits and vegetables I’d never heard of, let alone seen. It was an education.
So to learn that not only is Chapman a teacher in real life, and an abject foodie, but that in the US he was a tour guide and waiter in some of New Yorks’ top restaurants, and it all begins to make sense.
“When I first moved here I couldn’t believe Cowley Road. To find this variety of shops in New York or London would be something, but in such a condensed area? I’ve never seen anything like it and I had to do something about that – to remind people what they have right here on their doorsteps,” he explains.
“I began going into all these shops, meeting the owners, finding out about them and what they sell, and it blew my mind”
“So in lockdown and the school holidays I began going into all these shops, meeting the owners, finding out about them and what they sell, and it blew my mind,” he says.
Chapman then began the Cowley Road Food Tour in the autumn last year and unsurprisingly is already proving a big hit.
Without wanting to spoil anything, we find out about when the Saxons came her and why, the industrial revolution, 50s planning, how Cowley Road was nearly obliterated by a massive highway, why East Oxford became so attractive to new immigrants arriving in the UK, how shopping changed from small shops to supermarkets and then back again, and how long some of these artisan stores have been here – the butchers opened in 1937!
We visited Uhuru started by Oxford University students in the 70s, the Greek Meli, Tahmid, Seoul Plaza, Marco’s Deli, Il Principe, Baltic Food Shop, Euro Supermarket (don’t be deceived by the name – it’s laden with foodie treasures), ditto the Continental Store, Jing Jing and GG Snack Shack for Asian abundance, Al Amin for Middle Eastern goodies, Erdem for Turkish, Atif with it’s halal butcher, Brasileiro and its homemade merguez sausages, Alders, and so many more.
We talk kimchi and pizza, smoked fish and caviare, pine honey, asafoetida, bitter Russian beer, white aubergines, African pepper spices, Argan oil and olives.
The 90-minute walking tour leaves you opposite Divinity Road, able to then to revisit and buy any or all of the riches you have discovered.
We came back with bags bulging with goodies, from Pão de Queijo (Brazilian cheese balls) from Brasileiro, to the biggest avocados I’ve ever seen. The produce is spectacular and the range epic if you know where to look, and thanks to Chapman we now do, and are hooked. How and where I shop has now changed irrevocably.
“If I can hype up this area and encourage people to shop on Cowley Road and appreciate the diversity here, that would be so cool, because it is so exciting here and I’ve met so many new people along the way. It’s been awesome so far.”
So yes we’d recommend it heartily, shout about it from the rooftops even, and while you must go yourselves, it also makes the perfect gift for any fellow foodies you know.
To book the Cowley Road Food Tour, held on the first Saturday of the month, go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cowley-road-international-food-tour-tickets-319358549017?aff=ebdssbdestsearch. Tickets cost just £5 at present.