Matt and Cat’s lunch breaks are usually taken within a set radius from their Newport workplaces.
Their invisible umbilicus allows them to range to Olivo, French Franks and the Blue Door. Tugging a bit tighter on the string, they can make it to the Noodle Pot and even Original Phil’s. However, one day they decided to test its full extent and managed to get all the way to Pan before there was no more slack.
There may be some among you who hold an old-fashioned view about this vast housing estate. However, the area formerly known euphemistically as ‘disadvantaged’ is these days enjoying an unlikely mini-revival. Word had spread to Matt and Cat that a feature of Pan’s new neighbourhood spirit is the social café in the portacabin known as the Isobel Centre. Now, some might baulk at venturing into Pan and seeking out a portacabin for lunch – if so, they should get over themselves. Matt and Cat make a point of discovering and enjoying the Island’s good food, service and cooking wherever they can find it. Fancy restaurant and hotels certainly feature on that odyssey, but so do industrial cafés, burger vans and ice-cream kiosks. A big part of the fun is going to unlikely places and making unexpected discoveries. The Isobel Centre fulfils both those criteria.
By the little parade of shops in the middle of Pan were unmistakable signs of community activity. People outside the snappily-titled Downside Community and Learning Centre were painting carnival banners, youths were kicking a ball around a swanky games area, while kids and mums were enjoying the playground – spinning and bouncing on a modern see-saw. Cat had her eye on that for a go later but, with her weight being half of Matt’s she wondered whether she’d be launched into space – hot on the heels of the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Finding the Isobel Centre could be a challenge for anyone who is not familiar with the area but Matt and Cat, priding themselves on their encyclopaedic knowledge of the Island, knew where to go. As they approached, M&C saw builders outside the centre having their lunches under the shade of big umbrellas. Inside the clean and smart café a vast TV was broadcasting the latest from the Olympics. Jaunty menu cards adorned the tables, and a big chilled counter displayed a tempting array of salads and other foods. Busy volunteers were bustling about seeing to the many people coming and going, most of whom were greeted by name. The community spirit was alive and well.
Cat, originally planning to have a cooked lunch, had her head easily turned by the tempting-looking salads. These included Coronation chicken, and egg mayonnaise sprinkled with paprika. The lady serving, seeing Cat’s tail swish with indecision, also offered her the possibility of mozzarella and avocado. This made the choice even more difficult as it’s not possible to flip a coin for three options. Taking counsel from Matt, Cat plumped for avocado and mozzarella and full English for Matt.
As Matt and Cat waited for their food – which they could watch being prepared freshly behind the counter – they felt almost like welcome house-guests of some vast extended family. M&C had not seen this level of personal service and integrated community since they had Sunday lunch at Fields Nursery, Niton. As an old lady who’d come into the Isobel Centre was fussed over by three separate volunteers, a teenager whose trousers were fashionably at half-mast was subjected to gentle ribbing. The dame, who previously had seemed a bit upset, clocked the youth’s low-slung denim and cheered up enormously as she called out, “Anyone looking for somewhere to park their bike?”
Full English (inc tea) £4.50
2 x cakes £1.50
So the café scored highly on its atmosphere, but what about the menu? Cat, having eyed up the salads in their take-away plastic bowls was expecting something of that ilk for her lunch, which would have been entirely satisfactory. However, she couldn’t have been further wrong. Presented with a salad which would have put many Island restaurants to shame, she sat open-mouthed for a moment or two and took in its radial beauty. Perfectly-ripe slices of avocado were beautifully arranged on a bed of mixed leaves and sliced tomatoes. At the centre of the dish was a pile of sliced mozzarella and the whole lot was drizzled with a herby dressing. It tasted as good as it looked.
Like the salad, Matt’s full English was nicely presented. With two sausages, two rashers of bacon, double hash browns, fresh mushrooms, tomatoes and a fried egg, it was an excellent example of the genre. The egg was particularly note-worthy as it had a perfect runny yolk but the top had been carefully cooked.
After they had eaten their meals, Matt and Cat were joined by a friend of theirs who had popped in to the café for a cuppa and a chat with the volunteers. Before long the lady from behind the counter had sat down with them and soon it transpired that, like the renowned Taverners and Pointer Inn, the staff at the little Isobel Café created dishes using food from locals’ allotments and gardens. There was some talk of a special Pan dish, perhaps pan haggerty. Cat joined in the debate, offering up the more obvious puntastic ‘pan’cakes. This turned the talk to cakes and M&C soon learned that all of the cakes served in the Isobel Centre were home-made. Their friend was happy to vouch for them – particularly the lemon drizzle cake. Whether she knew this was one of Cat’s favourites was unclear but it was only a matter of moments before Cat had hopped back to the counter, returning with cake. Matt stuffed his in straight away but Cat took hers away in a little box, to enjoy later. It did not disappoint.
So, what to make of Pan’s café? With the help of Pan Together, the estate seems to have turned a corner and, to Matt and Cat’s eyes, demonstrated a level of community and solidarity which makes David Cameron’s Big Society look like “aspirational waffle”. At the hub of this is the Isobel Centre, a community resource which includes IT Suite, meeting rooms and, of course the café. Clearly Matt and Cat are keen advocates of this community facility and not just for worthy societal reasons – it serves fabulous fresh and local food at decent prices. Heartily recommended.