Robinson tops TCS Food Survey, Caius and Fitz struggling

Alexander King & Felicity Davis 29 January 2010

Let’s face it: Whether you’re a massive rugby lad or a petite, diligent chorister, every student needs their food. While it may not be the most important factor when applying, a college’s social scene often revolves around the buttery or formal hall, almost as much as the bar or JCR. Are the myths true though? Are King’s and John’s formals really the toast of the town, and is Caius food barely palatable? The Cambridge Student has compiled a survey, to compare formals and butteries throughout the university.

When it comes to buttery food, Robinson has topped the tables across the board, with students claiming it to be ‘fantastic’. A varied menu and proper quantities of food have come up as major assets, as well as particular staff dedication. One student “loved the chef’s specials”. Another even commented that food comprised “very decent size portions, possibly even a bit too big.” Not exactly a major concern for most Cambridge students. Vegetarians were particularly positive. One student even quoted it as the reason why he chose to apply to Robinson. Around 35% of Robinson students qualified their food as ‘delicious’, and 57.5 % deemed it good.

The issue of socialising around food was important in the survey: one student at King’s complained that the rise in the price of pastries from 50p to £1.20 had killed off their morning gatherings. “It seems a small point, but it actually dictates the social atmosphere.”

Trailing at the bottom of the table, the feedback from Caius proved scathing, with 23.4% of students decrying the amount they pay taking into account quality as extortionate. One student described food there as “worse than school dinners.”

Trailing at the bottom of the table, the feedback from Caius proved scathing, with 23.4% of students decrying the amount they pay taking into account quality as extortionate. One student described food there as “worse than school dinners.”

Peterhouse is currently wallowing in a winter of discontent, with students bemoaning aspects such as poor vegetarian options, and a predominance of potatoes at every meal.  Around 1 in 3 Petrieans would describe their food as ‘poor’, despite over 65% attending every day or almost every day.

The woes of vegetarian students are a recurrent theme. One student from Trinity Hall described the options thus: “A typical vegetarian main course choice is between a cheese and onion pasty or ‘herb encrusted vegetables’, which are the same vegetables provided as side dishes but with herbs on top.” One student at Queen’s went even further: “Catering for vegetarians is inefficient, and the ban on students bringing in plug in ovens makes it very hard to eat properly.” Trinity College seemed to suffer under similar circumstances: “I’m not vegetarian, but I would like to eat healthily once in a while if only the vegetarian options weren’t so damn awful.”

Another aspect of controversy was the lack of variety. Side dishes vary little in some colleges, with one Magdalenite pointing out that chips are forthcoming “just about every day”. At Peterhouse, the recurring dish seems to be potatoes. “While all these carbs might be OK for a rower or rugby player, I myself wish the salad bar was better stocked,” one student commented.

In terms of improvement, the college which according to its students has made the most progress in recent years has been Magdalene. 54.2% of surveyed members said that their college food had improved since they first arrived in Cambridge. This has been attributed partly to a survey launched last year, addressing feedback from the students to the staff in a constructive manner. On the other end of the spectrum the colleges who showed any significant decline according to their members were Peterhouse and Trinity Hall, with 25.6% and 25.2% of students claiming they had seen a decline in college catering, respectively.

Most colleges have a Kitchen Fixed Charge (KFC) to cover the overheads of preparing food in Halls or Butteries, and paying bedders to clean student kitchens. There are, however, a few colleges who have decided against implementing a Kitchen Fixed Charge for example Homerton, Queens and Gonville and Caius.  Queens managed to abolish the KFC without increasing the cost of food for those using their university cards to pay. Those paying by cash pay a little extra, as these transactions take more time and therefore more money to process.

There is no Kitchen Fixed Charge at Caius, but students are required to buy a minimum number of dining tickets. Similarly, students at Peterhouse are required to take 35 evening meals in college per term, and Selwyn have a minimum meals charge of 65 pounds a term. Many colleges seem to be quickly defensive of their catered halls, as opposed to a potentially more economical self catered system. Churchill College’s website suggests that “eating together is an important part of college life. It’s an ideal chance to meet friends — old and new. There may be times when, for one reason or another, you (like Greta Garbo) just “want to be alone”, but generally we would encourage you to sit down next to someone, even if a total stranger. You may learn all sorts of interesting things.” Similarly Queens’ argues that it “is very much a community and we foster this in many ways, the traditional one being by eating together.” They add that “self-catering is not encouraged – student kitchens (called gyp rooms) have only very basic facilities and anyway, Queens’ has a reputation for some of the best food in the University;” a claim made by the majority of Cambridge colleges. This may be partly due to its ‘themed lunches’, which are “very exciting”, according to one surveyed Queensperson. Another college boasting their own particularity is Churchill, who do take-away style pizza in their buttery.

At Murray Edwards, culinary experimentation within the kitchens seems to be more encouraged. According to their website, their “gardeners now grow a wide selection of herbs and some vegetables which they encourage College students to pick and use whenever they want.”

L. Franklin, a first-year at Murray Edwards, told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “I love the herb garden – a real highlight of the college.

“I like the African basil. Although the Goji berries were a bit poor. They could work on that – larger numbers. I think it’s just fantastic. I just put it in my pasta and stuff – casual – just pick it on my way in.”

Another college quirk is run by Emmanuel, which boasts a shop selling sweets and snacks run by ECSU.

The colleges with the fewest formal halls are Girton and King’s College, which have only one formal hall a week. As a result King’s is the most expensive formal hall, at £14.50 a go. It is very difficult to obtain guest tickets for formal hall at King’s, as tickets often sell out online within minutes. Magdalene has one of the cheapest formal halls, at just £4.75.

Colleges that topped the formal ranking did so usually with a combination of good atmosphere and good food. 78.2% of students who had attended a formal at King’s said the atmosphere was ‘excellent’.

While formals famous for their fare such as John’s were generally well-attended, some are as of yet unknown to most students. Corpus Christi, for example, boasts exclusivity as well as excellent catering and an opulent setting.

However the most atmospheric college turned out to be Magdalene, with its candlelit formals giving it a 79.6% excellence rate among members of the university who had experienced it.

St. John’s, despite having one of the most opulent formals in Cambridge, still has unusual arrangements when it comes to wine, with a ban on bringing your own bottle into formal.

One Caius student explained that he was “disappointed with formal hall. Service is too hurried such that a three course meal may take less than forty minutes.

Sometimes one course is brought before the previous one is finished. “While service was good in the colleges overall, many students complained that their colleges tried to rush formals.

One student at Magdalene said that “if you give the staff a chance they’ll whisk away your plate while you’re chatting to your neighbour”.

Some students commented that money that could otherwise be spent on food is wasted: “Cereal, in my opinion, are overpriced and the packaging is unacceptably wasteful – a dispenser with cereal would be useful, as the college would not have to buy tiny packs (that are probably more expensive) and the amount of packaging would be cut down.”

This comment from Trinity College was echoed by students at other colleges such as Fitzwilliam and Magdalene.

It should be noted however that criticism was directed especially at vegetarian options and variety in general, and most surveyed students seemed generally satisfied with their college fare.

This article was compiled using the results from individual surveys sent out to each college. Over 650 students participated. We unfortunately did not receive feedback from the following colleges: Christ’s, Clare, Girton, Homerton, Pembroke, St.Catharine’s and Selwyn. We furthermore regret that we were unable to survey graduate colleges, as well as Sidney Sussex College.

To read the full story with the published league tables please download a PDF copy of TCS here: Lent 2010 Issue 3

Alexander King & Felicity Davis