Food columnist Murray embarks on a new culinary adventure in Fife, with help from his howling cat Simone.
I think we all have days when we think modern life is rubbish, and my most recent was just last week.
It started with a trip to the vet with my cat Simone, who had stopped eating and had become as lethargic and supine as her owner embracing the worst sloth of lockdown.
Unlike me, however, the stresses and strains of our world have largely been kept from my adopted little furry friend who normally only frets about whether to rip up the William Morris fabric on my antique chair, the Indian silk on the blanket box or the stair carpet.
Since there’s only room for one attention-seeking, anxious, needy, recalcitrant lazy creature in this house, something clearly had to be done to recapture normality and the equilibrium of good health.
Soon, though, what I hoped would be a simple visit to the vet in Newport led to me speeding to their main branch in St Andrews with a howling cat unaware that she was about to undergo a day of prodding, poking and privacy-invasion quite unsuited to one who must be obeyed.
This left me footloose and forlorn in South Street, killing time in the only way I knew as a good consumer – relentless shopping and eating. That the day ended with salvation by way of a mushroom and camembert toastie and a cup of mulled apple juice says much about hope, faith, love and the power of melting cheese.
My first idea was to go to Rogue for lunch because Mary-Jane Duncan had recently recommended it. But it has temporarily closed its doors; a glimpse at the menu posted in the window made me all the more determined to go there as soon as it reopens.
Suddenly the day opened up like a chasm and what would normally seem a pleasure became a chore – getting through the day, anxiously glancing at the phone to see if the vet had called, unable to think of anything other than the unthinkable.
It was still only 11.30am, so I needed to find interesting things to occupy me before deciding on somewhere for lunch. I wanted warmth, joy and an atmosphere of support because, in truth, I was extremely worried about what might be ailing my cat.
On top of the general lunacy of the world and worries about Christmas I fell victim to a sudden sense of tristesse, a melancholy that engulfed me like a coarse prison blanket.
An amble round the excellent Toppings bookshop (they have signed copies of Nigella’s new book) led me to stumble upon the nearby shop Spoiled Life, whose attractive frontage promised what seemed a respite at that point – homeware and coffee.
At times of stress I’ve normally found that spending money on fripperies helps (I write this deeply aware of my good fortune to still have an income and only myself and an elderly cat to feed). The sudden promise of good coffee and intoxication via scented candles was an alluring one and I have to say that Spoiled Life does both brilliantly.
Firstly, the name couldn’t be better, couched as it is in such perfect ambiguity. How very 2020 (the shop opened in January, when this wretched year was still filled with promise) to name a shop something which both celebrates the joy of plenty, or of waste.
I have to say that I entered Spoiled Life ironically feeling a bit sorry for myself – alone, anxious and irrationally obsessed by mortality and what I’d actually achieved in my 61 years on Earth.
I left feeling thankful for what I have and with a renewed sense of purpose to achieve more. That’s quite a bang for your buck (a flat white is a mere £2.50).
Spoiled Life is the shop of your dreams, assuming your dreams are filled with nice things. I can’t think of anywhere like it in the local area and to say I was suddenly transported to a trendy store in New York’s Tribeca wouldn’t be over-hyping the feel of the place.
This shop is chic and they get everything right: the coffee and cake were excellent and the baguette I bought to take home was a delight. Tables are dotted around on two levels, with extra seating downstairs amongst the homewares. Music plays at the perfect level. Nothing jars; there is a sense of all being well with the world.
It’s such a find, like chancing upon the quietly perfect Rose Bakery on the top floor of the ultra-hip Dover St Market in London – but in St Andrews.
Chocolate cake and coffee
As it stands, it’s a cushion of gentle perfection, anyway, and I gorged on chocolate cake and coffee until my spirits soared and the caffeine rush sent me and my wallet towards sensory euphoria by way of scented candles.
Next on my adventure was the Harbour Cafe at Shorehead, by the East Sands, which was another great find; here you get a lovely view of the harbour for the price of a cup of tea.
The simple joy of this place is a combination of the location and the honesty of what’s offered. I had some home-made potato soup with brown bread (£2) which seemed like the food of the gods as I ate it outside at a plastic table, the sun streaming down on the water and some old fishermen clustered nearby. Sadly it’s now just closed for the winter. I can’t wait to go back to this little gem when they reopen in January.
After a walk along the beach and three seconds when some intrepid bathers made me wish I was the kind of person to disrobe and plunge into the icy waters in my underpants, it was time for even more food, and this is when the day really took flight.
The Cheesy Toast Shack is a complete revelation although, since my epiphany, I have now realised that I’m the last person on Tayside to have discovered this temple of melting proteins and fats.
This is the beachside place I’ve dreamt of finding ever since I bought my house in Fife 16 years ago. Firstly, it looks so great, berthed as it is on the edge of the beach at East Sands. Visiting a second consecutive time on Thanksgiving I fancifully remarked that it reminded me of somewhere you might find in the Hamptons, until David reminded me I had never been to the Hamptons.
But there is something so glamorously weathered about the look of this place that it draws you in to the whole relaxed concept – a place selling fantastic grilled cheese sandwiches and mulled apple juice, mere steps from the beach.
Things get even better when you discover the adjacent pop-up stall selling delicious raclette – garlic and rosemary potatoes, Serrano ham, melted raclette, pickles and rocket (£7.50) which is everything you want on a gusty day at the beach.
The day before I had tried the mushroom and Camembert toastie (£5.50) which comprised balsamic glazed mushrooms, Camembert, rocket and blackcurrant mayo and I have to say it was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten all year.
I asked co-owner Kate Carter-Larg how this great business started: “We started in 2015 when I had just moved to Scotland to be with my husband Sam. We bought a trailer (which is now located at Kingsbarns, our other location) and did it up ourselves.
“We felt that grilled cheese was such a comforting food, one that everyone loves. But we didn’t just want to do a regular toastie; we wanted to do the most impressive, amazing gooey toasties people could get their hands on.
“Since then the business has just grown and grown in popularity, and after Kingsbarns we opened our takeaway shop in St Andrews. We’ve also worked down in Somerset at the Glastonbury Festival and in Edinburgh as part of the Fringe festival.
“We’ve now branched out from just doing toasties to offering speciality coffee, deluxe hot chocolate and other sides. This year we’re also offering raclette from our winter pop-up chalet, as well as Spanish churros and our own brand of coffee.
“We’re also selling Christmas trees and wreaths.”
Sitting on a nearby bench eating such divinely simple food and drinking hot mulled apple juice, I watched the November sun dappling over the waves and suddenly remembered what a wonderful world we live in.
Shortly after this I got the call that Simone was ready to be collected and taken home. Armed with Berkswell cheese from Ian Mellis, a takeaway from the fantastic Korean/Japanese fusion restaurant CombiniCo and some gastrointestinal sensitive chicken for Simone, we returned home to reflect on an eventful day.
Spoiled Life, 15 Greyfriars Garden, St Andrews. KY16 9HG. t:01334 478189 w: spoiledlife.co.uk
Harbour Café, Shorehead, St Andrews KY16 9RG. Now closed until Jan 2021.
The Cheesy Toast Shack. Woodburn Place, St Andrews. KY16 8LA. Facebook/instagram; The Cheesy Toast Shack. Also located at Kingsbarns Beach, KY16 8QD
I J Mellis, 149 South St, St Andrews. KY16 9UN. t:01334 471410. w: mellischeese.net
CombiniCo, 91 South St, St Andrews. KY16 9QW. w: combinico.com
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