For many colleges, formals are finally back on the menu. Whether that means donning your gown for the first time in a year, or a more relaxed opportunity to enjoy hall food without plastic screens muting any hopes of a conversation, the return to inside dining has been much awaited by many. For many freshers, this term offers the prospect of their first formals ever – and with it, the promise of a normal student experience, though it may well feel overdue. So, although some college chefs have kept us entertained over lockdowns with Instagram posts and student-friendly recipes, their time has come to shine and plate up Masterchef-worthy creations for halls filled with hungry students who have been eagerly waiting for their chance to be a food critic.

Last Friday, I attended my college’s first formal of Trinity and was overwhelmed with nostalgia as I filed into the hall with the 49 other lucky ticket holders. I felt as though I’d won a golden ticket, though I’d have to wait until dessert for a taste of dreamy chocolate. The familiar sight of candlesticks sitting side by side with the cheapest bottles of Pinot Grigio made me grin from ear to ear; after a long stretch of unfulfilling student experience, going back to normal is like clouds parting to reveal sunshine. Even given the variance in hall food prices, it does feel like a real privilege that a hallmark of the Oxford experience is a three-course meal for about a fiver – impossible to forget as I marvelled at the starter of whipped goats cheese, beetroot, and pickled fennel salad, served with the well-loved bread and butter and a slice of toasted ciabatta.

For mains, the omnivores among us were served a slow cooked lamb shank, tender enough to slide off the bone, while vegetarians such as myself received an eggplant steak with a scored king oyster mushroom. I particularly loved the use of mushroom on the aubergine, it lent it an umami earthiness and slightly beefy flavour to the otherwise wholly vegetable based dish. Served with crushed new potatoes, seasonal veg and herby jus, both of these options were really popular- the food lived up to the high standards we had set for our first formal back in college. In the last few years, many restaurants and takeaways have upped their veggie and vegan game as a result of skyrocketing demand for plant-based alternatives. This trend seems to have extended to college kitchens too, as this was undoubtedly the best vegetarian (and vegan friendly) meal I’ve been served in hall. Each dish had an almost identical vegan counterpart, so rejoice vegans, at the end of boring salads and fruit plates!

As someone with a certified sweet tooth, I’d been looking forward to the dessert from the moment I walked into the hall – although I cook a fair amount of my own food, the precision and luxury of formal hall desserts remain firmly out of my territory, and always feel like a real treat. We were served a blackcurrant and raspberry chocolate bar, filled with mousse, alongside a scoop of fresh raspberry sorbet. The perfect combination of sweetness and tartness rounded off my first formal of Trinity term and reminded me of all the good yet to come, despite the sour bits of the pandemic we’re all keen to leave behind.

All in all, my first formal of 2021 was a great experience, leaving me feeling grateful to have been back in hall surrounded by friends, and far from the desk at which I ate most of my meals during virtual Trinity. The menu was thoughtfully curated, making use of seasonal and local produce, and it was clear that the vegetarian and vegan alternatives were given just as much consideration. I’ll definitely be trying to grab a ticket for the next formal at my college – and I’d recommend you do the same!

Published in print on 26/05/2021

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