Thursday, 19 July 2012

Oxford Sunday

Sunday dawned wet and dreary and after a substantial full English breakfast we were treated to a talk by Barbara Santich about Aboriginal cooking in Australia.  The native Australians wrapped fish in banana leaves or paper bark, covered with thick mud and then baked on hot stones.  Wallabies were killed and gutted and hot stones placed inside to cook from inside as well as being wrapped and cooked from the outside.  The British felt they had a duty to "improve" the life of the Aboriginals and replaced the paper bark and mud with cooking pots.  Paper bark was also used to make canoes.

The next item consisted of the unveiling of a Joselito Iberico ham which was placed on a special carving stand, different knives were shown us - a boning knife for working around the bone as the ham diminishes and a flexible thin ham knife for carving slices.  The best way to carve is upwards from the foot towards the bone and it requires a lot of practice to become an expert.  The ham we watched (and later ate) was taken from a pig born in 2006 in Extramadura and had been fed solely on acorns and chestnuts.  The pigs' teeth have separated during evolution and they manage to eat the nuts and expel the husks through the gaps.  Our pig had been slaughtered in 2008 and hung at Salamanca for four years in the air, the first year in a dark cellar to enable the flora to develop.  The flavour was superb.

After coffee there was a round the table discussion on The Art of Table between Theodore Zeldin,  Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden and Paul Levy.   Some of the points made give much thought for the future; conversation is the art of life; we never know what is going on in someone else's head; food is a form of communication; empathy comes when food is shared; twitter and facebook have taken over and many people no longer sit at tables. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Oxford Saturday Afternoon and Evening

The afternoon session began with a film about cassava "The history of Chikwangue" which is a popular part of the diet in the Congo.  Cassava was imported to Africa from Brazil by the Portuguese in around 1630 and is a very important source of nutrition.  Chikwangue is a bitter cassava root which takes a great deal of preparation before it is edible.  The roots are soaked in running water for two to three days to wash away the toxins and then the tubers are pressed through a sieve to enable the fibres to be removed.  The resultant pulp is then drained in a canvas bag for a further two or three days, kneaded and steamed.  At this point the cassava is separated into small lumps and wrapped in either plantain or banana leaves and steamed again.  It is now ready for consumption - it takes ten days from start to finish and does not look particularly appetising when done. 

We then had a really interesting talk about the importance of Sarma (rolled) and Dolma (stuffed) dishes as therapy tools for the Anatolian woman in the kitchen.  Social activity between women in parts of Turkey is severely limited but the preparation of feasts is considered a significant social opportunity for women to get together.  The ability to produce perfectly stuffed dolma and rolled sarma is a "marriageability" test for the young maidens of Anatolia.  The dolma are made from different leaves all over Turkey because the climate means that some species flourish - vine, mulberry, cabbage and hazelnut leaves are all fairly common.  There are special dishes made for weddings, feasts and celebrations and the women communicate whilst collaberating making them.  Chubby women are affectionately referred to as "Dolma" and highly regarded.  Aubergines, peppers and courgettes are hollowed out and dried on strings in the sun, these tubes are hoarded for the winter and reconstituted.  Meat dolma are made the day before consumption and then reheated and served hot, they are a sign of wealth.  Vegetable dolma are generally served cold with a dressing of oil  Rice and maize can be used to stuff them and lots of spices are used to add flavour and interest.

Saturday supper was a Turkish feast sponsored by the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce and was an authentic and wonderful experience.  We began with nibbles comprising baked and folded borek with cheese and tarragon, mini spicy walnut spread rolls and fried cheese rolls accompanied  by Buzbag Narince, a dry white wine, and Terra Kalecik Karasi, a delicious rose.   The main course consisted of vine leaves stuffed with spicy lamb,  aubergines and peppers stuffed with beef and courgettes stuffed with smoked green wheat all served hot and accompanied by cold vegetable stuffed vine leaves and lentil balls wrapped in vine leaves and lettuce.  The wine here was a Terra Narince dry white.   Pudding was a massive tray of those gorgeous baklava style pistachio pastries - enough presented to eat a couple of dozen each.  I managed three. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Oxford Saturday Lunch

Lunch on Saturday was a German sausage fest organised by Ursula Heinzelmann, Ursula is a journalist based in Berlin and a Trustee of The Symposium.  She had managed to get various companies to sponsor all the food and drink for lunch and it was magnificent.  I lived in Germany for some nine years altogether and acquired a taste for all German foods and drinks - a dear friend still keeps me supplied with certain necessities on his annual visits to UK. 

We started with Maultaschensuppe from the Swabian area and this was absolutely delicious, a very gentle clear broth flecked with a little fresh parsley which had one large ravioli floating in it.  The ravioli was stuffed with meat and about two inches square - more like a pillow really, a German pillow anyway!  This was accompanied by a 2011 Silvaner Kabinett from Juliusspital in Wurzburg, there was also plenty of beer in case that was preferred - in this case Distel Spezial from the Distelhaeuser Brewery in Frankfurt.  The second course was an assortment of different sausages, the Pfaelzer Saumagen was a stomach stuffed with minced and chopped pork liberally spiced with pepper served in chunks, there was a Berliner Blutwurst and a Berliner Leberwurst - both steamed whole - and a Thuringer Bratwurst which had been grilled.  To accompany we had bowls of thinly sliced white radish which the Germans call Rettich and we call Mouli lightly dressed with vinegar, bowls of sauerkraut and bowls of potato salad.  There were baskets of different German breads and pretzels plus pots of Thuringer mustard and freshly grated horseradish - which was not as hot as I expected it to be.  The pudding was little poppyseed cakes made by spreading a sweet yeast dough with poppyseed paste and then rolling up like a Swiss roll and cutting into slices before baking.  The German word is Mohnschnecken and they looked exactly like snails with the creamy/brown and black whorls.  The pudding was accompanied by a 2002 Riesling Auslese Urziger Wurzgarten from Bernkastel on the Mosel. 

More Oxford

There was a sort of panel discussion on the stage between four people called "Stuffing, Unstuffing, Wrapping and Rapping" - the title eventually became clear as the discussion progressed.

The first speaker was called Harry West, he is a professor at London University but since he is American I am not sure if he was using the term "professor" in the British or the American sense.  He is a bit of an authority on cheese and showed a few pictures of a French affineur removing paper wrappings put on by the actual cheese producers and then allowing a mould to form on the rind over the maturation period.  This mould was then in turn brushed away before the cheese was rewrapped in paper using the affineur's logo.  The title of his presentation was "The Audacity of Wrapping and Unwrapping Cheese" and since I could see nothing at all audacious I decided that we are definitely two nations divided by a common language. 

The second panellist was called Ben Coles. also American, but from the University of Leicester.  He 
gave quite an entertaining talk on Chicken Kiev and the magical process by which the stuffing (the garlic butter) becomes a sauce when the wrapper (the chicken) is cooked.  He also got quite heavy about the ethics of a product placed in a tray, wrapped in film and then placed in a box.  At least Marks now charge 5p for a carrier bag.  He also debated (with himself) the likelihood of free range chicken being used in the production of Chicken Kiev and decided it was unlikely.

The third speaker was the only female and the only Brit.  Her name is Emma Jane Abbots and she is a doctoral student studying nutrition.  She made some very interesting points which will have me reading food labels with even more vigilance than presently - and I am pretty vigilant since I buy very little processed food.  Apparently corn syrup is the baddie in 21st century food production, it  affects the human liver in the same way that force feeding acts on geese to produce foie gras.  A lot of prepared ready meals name corn syrup in their ingredients and in some products they are alarmingly early on the list, since ingredients are listed in order of quantity as a percentage - the highest coming first - this is truly frightening.  She made the point that feeding can be used as a form of power as well as nourishment and care and the refusal of food can mean a rejection of the provider.  She talked about the marathon eating competitions which are really obscene.  The link to the theme of the Symposium was that stuffing oneself is abuse of the very worst kind.

The final speaker was Michael Goodman, also American, who talked about how food is central to relationships and that eating together is an intimate thing.  Food can mean pleasure, we use the expression "I am stuffed" when feeling pleasurably full.  The anorexic feels pleasure when totally empty and disgust if full and can then turn bulimic.

The panel then generally discussed other things that their individual offerings had provoked in the audience.  Some of the points I noted was that food can travel, there is very little food not available in major cities due to the demographics of shifting world populations.  The enormous power wielded by supermarkets who get 75% of the total food shopping market in the UK.  The ethical stances taken by some celebrities, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver particularly got mention.  Food is safer today than it has been at any time in history.  Certification of food can imply ethical or moral stances being taken but the point was made that Lochmuir does not exist as a loch in Scotland and the name was chosen by Marks & Spencer marketing team to imply that the salmon was swimming around a loch happily without actually claiming that.   Supermarkets are about selling food and food products.  They invest huge amounts in development of value added food.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

More Oxford

Saturday morning dawned and after fortifying myself with a splendid breakfast I wandered across to the lecture theatre for the day's activities.  Paul Levy, Elisabeth Luard and Claudia Roden opened the proceedings by reminding us that the ethos of the Symposium was the exchange of ideas and this is encouraged via the medium of table talk.   Food is history, social, art, redemptive and culture.  And I thought I was just greedy.  We were advised that the Julia Child Foundation had made a substantial donation to enable this year's proceedings to be recorded and then put on the Symposium website so that is a treat to look forward to.  We were advised that there is a new virtual museum to food which can be found at and should be worth looking at, it is in the process of being set up at the moment but a quick peek shows it will be worth visiting.

The young chef scholarship was awarded to Lucas Weir and the Sophie Coe Award to Di Murral.  Di's book, Food on the Move, tells the story of the inland waterways (specifically canals) and the people who lived on them and how they managed to feed their families whilst transporting goods around the country.  As Di accepted her award she announced that she is living proof that it is never too late to start writing as this is her first attempt and she looked to be over 60 years old and described herself as a rank amateur.

The first lecture was given by Laura Shapiro (Julia Child's biographer) who declared that food is social history and gave us a hysterically funny account of The Pillsbury Bake Off.  The Bake Off is a competition in America which began in 1949 and is still running today where the top prize is a million dollars.  Thousands of people enter with the weirdest ideas (marshmallow baked in bread dough and tunnel fudge cake are just two of the more notable winners) and 100 finalists are chosen every year, gathered together for a luxury holiday and bake their recipes under competition conditions when a winner is chosen.  There is a Bake Off Hall of Fame and every year a recipe book is published of the finalists' contributions - I must keep my eyes peeled for one in second hand shops.

To be continued

Oxford Continued

After the tea party it was time to report to the Lecture Theatre for the opening of the Symposium proper.  The theme this year was "Wrapped and Stuffed" and the proceedings opened with a short film made by Barbara and Joe Wheaten entitled "Pancakes aloft and other Anomolies" which was quite unusual to say the least.  Have you ever seen a thin buckwheat pancake (a la Breton) folded like origami into the shape of a bird and then sent flying across the kitchen?  I have.  There were fast mini demonstrations of sushi and ravioli making too but the flying pancakes remain with me.

The Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture followed and was given by David Thompson on the theme "Thai Food - Stuffed, Wrapped and Beyond" which was absolutely fascinating.  David Thompson is a renowned Thai food expert and chef, he is Australian by birth and Thai by inclination.

He explained that Thai cooking is deft, elegant and complicated.  The cuisine has many metaphysical connections and the wrapping patterns have significance, the rituals are used to propitiate gods.  Thai food is not just sustenance, it is used as a vehicle to convey worship and has celestial connotations.  The Thais believe that the stomach and soul are intertwined and if the main influences of Brahmin, Buddhist and Hindu religions are considered, all the goods can be appeased and the human is guaranteed a smooth passage through life.

Thais are very superstitious and believe that food is affected by astrology.  Monks calculate the best times to make certain things and then visit the premises, bless the surroundings and eat.  All food is freshly cooked and prepared and a lot of it is wrapped in banana leaves which are easily obtainable, they are also used as serving plates.  It is believed that food has value beyond nutrition and feeds the soul.  The more complicated and sophisticated the preparation, the more merit is bestowed on the finished dish.

The Thais have a great reverence for the past and consider that historical days are also halcyon days.  It is believed that the late 19th Century was the high point of Thai gastronomy.  They also think that food unifies and makes a "communion" which embraces the spiritual.

David described a pancake made using egg yolks and coconut which is spread very thinly on a hot plate and then used to wrap pineapple which I cannot wait to try.  The pineapple's "eyes" are considered to signify great learning.  He also described the rice porridge commonly eaten for breakfast which is known as congee, apparently the addition of expensive seafoods does not stop it being a "fasting" food!

We then went for a tasting of Thai wines (the Monsoon brand - they were very good) to kick off the evening and our celebration opening dinner which was cooked by Rowley Leigh and the staff of Catz led by head chef Tim Kelsey.  We started with a lovely bisque with Scottish langoustines and Scottish haddock wrapped in filo pastry.  This was followed by a Saddle of Lamb Wellington which was amazing, the lamb was salt marsh lamb and it was served with samphire and new potatoes - absolutely delicious.  This was followed by the best summer pudding I have ever tasted - I usually find them too sharp and smother with cream but this was perfection on a plate on its own. 

We then went off to the Junior Common Room and had a great party with people reciting poems, singing songs and drinking more wine.  I felt like a proper student and staggered off to bed at midnight.  I slept like a log, perhaps something to do with the amount of wine consumed.  Caroline Conran had cadged a load of wine from the Spanish Government and we had the most distinguished white rioja, a Rueda Verdejo 2011 and a Ribera del Duero Crianza.  The generosity of the hospitality is really noticeable - there were probably two or three bottles per person available and some people had a good try at drinking their own bodyweight.  I am a lightweight these days so did not even manage my share.

To be continued. 

It should be noted by my readers that I am not only poor and cannot afford a camera, I am also incompetent and would not know how to use it if I had one.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Oxford Food Symposium 2012

I was again privileged to be able to attend the Food Symposium and this year was rather less star struck, even though there were more of my heroes of yesteryear present.  I was perfectly capable of having rational conversations instead of gibbering without pausing for breath - which must make some of my vocalising rather unintelligible.

The weather has been absolutely foul since our return from Cyprus and the rain is still coming down in sheets.  The opening Friday of the Symposium began rather earlier than in former years in that a Mad Hatter's Tea Party was planned to be held in the afternoon at Merton sports ground.  The rain simply poured down so we took shelter in Merton sports pavilion instead. 

We had a couple of Mad Hatters, at least four Alices and numerous Queens - all barking mad.  One lady had dressed in a gorgeous Edwardian tea gown complete with massive hat and another had made a hat completely from food by threading pea pods and chillis on wire which was twisted into a circular snail and topped with bunches of parsley as a crown.  Magnificent.  People in fancy dress were given a 50% discount on the entrance fee (this was an extra to the programme) but I would rather pay full price than go to the effort of making a suitable costume.  All the profits from the tea were donated to the Friends of The Oxford Symposium so it was all in a good cause.

The food was amazing - forgive my wander into Toad Hall - but there were


And there were also three amazing cakes.  One was a massive (about a yard square) sponge cake which had been iced with green icing and sprouted one huge red shiny mushroom which was a cheesecake covered with red jam plus about twenty smaller mushrooms made from meringue.  There was a three tiered wedding type cake decorated with pictures from behind the looking glass.  The third cake was supposed to be a 3D printed cake (alleged to be the first in Europe) made by Hod Lipson of Cornell but it got lost mid Atlantic so we were treated to a photograph of what it should have looked like.  All quite in keeping with the mad theme.

The tea was donated by the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall and it is the first time I have tasted English grown tea - very nice. 

There was a bit of a cabaret - the Mad Hatter kept on disappearing and reappearing, Baroness Elisabeth von Bismarck read from the recently discovered love letters between Lewis Carroll and Alicia, the favourite grand-neice of Count von Bismarck and Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire (my favourite Irishman) read and sang poems from Alice.

A wonderful start.

To be continued.