Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Oxford Food Symposium, or how to find similar-bellied friends whilst tasting rotten herring

'How do you feed hundred people with one goat? You can't. You need to ferment the meat of one goat to feed the crowd' a Sudanese saying quoted by Harrold McGee.

Still life with ham, lemon, a roll, a glass of wine, and others on a table by Pieter Claesz

When faced with an enormity of task to relay to you, my dear reader, the proceedings and happenings of the Oxford Food Symposium I have recently attended, my mind (or belly that is) goes into a gentle stupor. Where does one start?

And so I won't bother, I'll just tempt you with a few delectable tit-bits that will hopefully interest you to read on - and, indeed, join me and another 200 knighted foodies at the next year's Symposium.

'Never heard of it! Oxford what??'

This glorious 2 day event is essentially a series of high-brow (and less so) academic lectures, combined with a number of extraordinary feasts - all taking place in Oxford, at St Catherine's college.

St Catz, Oxford - the location of the symposium. The canteen

The symposium has been going for some 30 years, every year focusing on a particular theme. This year being - hence the afore-mention quote - 'Cured, fermented and smoked'.

The event has changed its shape quite dramatically from its modest beginnings when a few well chosen (including such legends as Claudia Roden, whose illumenous presence was still there this year) got together to discuss the higher meanings of food. Now it is a more sizeable gathering of over 200 democratically paid attendees.

In short, it's for those of use who ascribe to - I like to eat,' therefore I think.

'Okeeeey, but what kind of lectures? give us some flavour!'

The day kicked off by formidable Sidney Mintz - an Anthropologist most famous for his 'Sweetness and power, the place of sugar in modern history', but is akin a semi-god for most impressionable young anthropologists. I had a pleasure of discussing the role of sauerkraut in Jewish Eastern European history with him very briefly.

Sidney Mintz was one of the speakers at the Symposium

Some topics covered were the history of Sustromming - a heavily fermented herring from the north of Sweden; fermentation from a microbe's point of view and the role of corned beef in shaping the Irish identity. Pure, unfermented bliss.

'Cut to the chase. What was the food like?'

Sadly, I missed the opening dinner on Friday night - a Feast of Cockaigne cooked by Jeremy Lee of Blueprint Café, but I cought up effortlessley the following 2 days:

Saturday lunch
An 'authentic' (their quotes, I do not dare to doubt) Sichuan Province feast conceived by Fuchsia Dunlop and prepared by London's Barshu Restaurant

Bang Bang Chicken
Sweet-and-sour Spare Ribs
Spicy Cucumber Salad
Refreshing Green Soybeans
Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts (the dish is named after a Qing Dynasty governor-general of Sichuan)
Bear's Paw Beancurd Choy Sam with Fragrant Oil Steamed Rice

Shichuan feast by Fuchsia Dunlop

I am not a fan of Chinese cuisine - from whichever part of the great country it comes from - but what Fuchsia and Barshu do is to me at a different level.

Saturday night Irish banquette
(enjoy the Daily Spud's view on it)
prepared by Páidric Óg Gallagher of Gallagher's Boxty House in Dublin

Wrights of Howth Organic Smoked Salmon with Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey Sally Barnes' Smoked Mackarel Ummara Smoked Silver Eel (caught in Brussels, for research purposes believe it or not)
Fingal Ferguson's Venison Salami and Irish Chorizo
McCarthy's of Kanturk Guiness and Cider Spiced Beef McCeough's Air-dried Lamb

Served with treacle and soda bread, horseradish cream and ballymaloe relish

Wrights of Howth Organic Smoked Salmon with Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey

Gallaghers Boxty House Boxty Potato Dumplings in a Crozier Blue Cheese Cream Sauce Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon
boiled topside Corned Beef from Kettyle Irish Foods

Served with Kishes of new potatoes from the gardens of Lissadell House, Cuinneog Irish Butter, sauteed York Cabbage, champ potato

Selection of Irish cheeses with Ditty's Home Bakery Traditional Oatcake Biscuits and Foods of Athenry Porter Cake

and wine, and more bread, and more cheese, and Irish coffee made to order and..

Sunday lunch - a Norvegian feast
prepared for us with the help of Pål Drønen and Margareth Tislevoll

This, to my taste, was the most interesting and inspiring of all meals, for the variety of the smoked and cured meats and fish and cleverness of the various curd cheese offerings (good old tvorog to a Russian soul..).

However, it was also at that stage that I started to feel slightly fermented myself, inside and out, from the copiousness of the food consumed, and therefore can only provide a few visuals of the dinner.

Norvegian delicacies: eel, fermented cheese, salmon..

'You've had good food and listened to some 'inspiring' talks, what now?'

It is also a rather wonderful, khmkhm, opportunity to network - brrr, a horrid word - to meet and make acquiescences with similar-minded, sorry, similar-bellied, people.

Some of the more memorable chats ranged from the role of food in sustaining Communism (or not), to how to make the best vodka cocktail (with pickled juices), and create theatre performances around food.

Next year's theme is 'Celebrations'...

1 comment:

Daily Spud said...

Even if I didn't want to attend the Symposium before (which I did), I would definitely want to attend it now! Next year perhaps...