In Woolwich I was in a constant state of terror in case I had to leave the flat. Here in Winchester I eagerly await each trip from the flat, not least because it will almost always involve stopping at Reeve the baker. My love for their bread and cakes, and the friendly, charming people who work there, have done more to alleviate my agoraphobia than any course of corrective chemicals or conversation. They’ve alleviated the excessive size of my trouser waistbands too.
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A good baker is a marvellous resource to have; anyone who has to rely on Greggs, as I once did, can only be painfully aware of the misery of inadequate bread. Reeve sell excellent bread plus a range of cakes and pastries that all but those with the most contrived and baroque of neurotic food perversions would joyfully consume. Not only are they are a delight to eat but also a joy to buy as the gratification in the goods has clearly suffused the staff with pleasure – you cannot buy anything from happier people anywhere.
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Their bread would seem a good place to start. They don’t have the broadest range you’ll encounter, but everything is made to extremely high standards and the focus on delivering pleasure is precisely the attitude we want. There is a delightful lack of pretension as well: their baguettes are ‘French sticks’, the focaccia is ‘cheese and onion bread’. The latter is a construction of happy excess, slathered with loads of cheese and powerfully flavoured red onion. The cheese and jalapeno (hot chillies on this one) and cheese and pesto breads are similarly charged with fromage fun.
This is perhaps shifting focus away from the basic breads: it’s hard to do better than them. The crusty rolls (six for the price of four) usually sell out before I can manage a civilised demeanour in the morning and this irks me to no small degree as they are perfectly formed. A crispy crust on the outside with a light, fluffy, flavoursome interior – brilliant filled with cheese, ham and plenty of chopped onion. The oven-bottom cob is another marvel with a perfect crust/interior balance of textures. That French stick is just wonderful stuffed with quality Hampshire sausage. All of this is premium bread, made with skill and attention and they don’t charge the Earth for it. Good bread is even more necessary for a happy life than obscenely fine wine and with Reeve a few minutes away my current happiness will assuredly continue.
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Pasties and pastries just do it for me in my lunch-zone. Well, the cheese and bacon puff does it for me all day, but largely for breakfast. The cheese they use is quite as good as on their cheesy breads and grilled to a Maillard-y tastiness. There is a rasher of seriously good bacon under this with some remarkably tasty and rarely wet tomato underneath. The pastry case itself is light and quite scrummily infused with flavours from the cheese and bacon. For a swift brekkie, this is the proverbial Good Thing.
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Editor Daniel has been quite taken with the Wiltshire pasties (why not ‘Hampshire pasties’ I am yet to challenge them on) and as someone who regularly threw out Greggs sausage rolls after a single bite their versions get the meat/fat balance in the sausage quite well tuned and, once again, the pastry is a joy. Never dry and powdery, always light, tasty and charged with a good carbohydrate buzz – they chose quality flour for their produce.
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Then there is cake.
Cake can provoke weird thoughts in some people. Dani and I are sadly aware of one rancid old bint who refuses to eat any bread, pasta or rice at a meal, only to go out to the nearest cake shop and fill her unfortunate face. Then there are those who will only eat cake if it is laced with vegetables with nary a hint of sugar, lest they should actually enjoy themselves. Both are unhealthy attitudes – there are few foods that should not be enjoyed with unashamed delight. Cake from Reeve is pleasure created with rare skill.
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Sadly, none of us are immune to some silliness with food. When I first spotted Reeve were selling Jap Fancies I found the name so absolutely hilarious I couldn’t go into the shop to order any and had to stand outside creased up with laughter whilst Daniel procured these little marvels. They are comprised of a vaguely coffee-flavoured paste compressed between some hazelnutty/meringue type discs which are dusted with a powder which, as the picture shows, is an almost identical colour to Buzzle, one of my favourite teddy bears. They are incredibly sweet, but remarkably easy to eat and even when ingested consecutively have not made me feel queasy. Really lovely cakes and you can read more about them on this bonkers but sadly unmaintained site. If you do visit that page I could add my only memory of Kunzle Showboat cakes is that they made me throw up all over my granddad’s lap.
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If insanely sweet is your thing then go for a treacle tart; the depth of treacle in them is gloriously impressive. They’re so sugar-charged I’m sure Reeve receives many sanctimonious letters from control-freak middle-class Guardian readers demanding that less fortunate people be banned from buying such things in case they enjoy them too much. I’ll admit that eating less than half of one made my teeth ache, but I loved it all the same. Reeve do a family size one as well – caries-tastic!
Just like with the cheesy breads, the spirit of happy excess also impregnates most of Reeve’s cakes. Look at how much sugar dusts that Chelsea bun! My virginal Reeve cake experience was a Belgian bun, which seduced me with its frankly rude amount of icing. The lemon tarts also have enough icing to keep several wedding cake manufacturers’ stock-rooms heaving and their thick and rich lemony flavour is the business.
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If Reeve ever stop making cakes I’m sure the resulting crash in sugar exports would render several Caribbean islands destitute. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?
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On the coldest day of the year so far Daniel and I went out for a country walk, in central Winchester, stopping via Reeve. The Eccles cake you see me enjoying is easily the best I’ve ever had. Reeve’s currants are impossibly plump and juicy, entirely unlike dried mouse poo. The syrupy goop they are preserved in, soaks into the base of the cake infusing it with hedonism, and the whole texture of the pastry and filling is utterly desirable. It was brilliant, I tell you. I’ll have another one tomorrow. Daniel had one of their Stollen slices and was tickled rosy-cheeked by its decadent butter and rum character. The preserved fruit in this was staggeringly good and if it was still Christmas I’d have one of those tomorrow as well.
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The staff radiate the same brilliance and limitless joy that suffuse all their glorious goodies. You could not find a jollier bunch of people unless you managed to substitute all the cabbage in a primary school canteen with raspberry jam without anyone but the children noticing.
Ever since I made a passing reference to ‘cake taxonomy’ on our first visit, the delightful Hayley treats us to such broad, winning smiles on every visit that any passing cosmetic dentists must feel woefully inadequate. She’s lovely, and making people smile is a noble thing to do; it’s only required moderate silliness on my part so far.
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Angie, pictured here modelling our afternoon’s supply of Jap Fancies, doesn’t think I’m silly enough. I’ve been rebuked (with a big grin on her face) for complaining about the weather; the standard, miserable English conversation topic is not fun enough for wonderful Angie. A couple of weeks ago I walked in and she leapt out at me saying, “You’re not allowed in! You’re spending all your pennies and getting fat!” again wearing a big smile. We whined until she relented and let us buy more cakes.
All the staff exude happiness, which has little to do with my generalised comedy value. They are simply happy people who enjoy their job, which is making people happy. What a great job to have!
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I’m sure I don’t need to add that I’ve never seen a miserable face in Reeve. Tom was somewhere between chuffed as punch and vastly offended to be called “Baby boy” by a customer – everyone in the shop laughed. I’m aware enough of my paranoia to know that they don’t really have gin and tonic vaporisers all around the shop to keep everyone who enters and works there charged with mirth, but the idea has occasionally seemed compelling.
Not long ago I repeated the phrase that “The first bite is with the eye” and I must admit that the first time I walked by Reeve I thought it looked like an undistinguished clone baker. Looks can be deceiving. I could not be happier in any shop, not even in a wine-merchant with the world’s most comprehensive Burgundy section with unlimited credit lines to tall people with glasses. Anyway, Berry’s stopped doing that years ago. Reeve has supremely high quality bread, cakes and baked goods sold by people I want to cuddle whilst mixing improving cocktails for. They are champion.
Here’s their website.