Monday, 11 July 2011

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery - 8-10 July 2011

I have wanted to go to this for years but have never managed to do it before so was really thrilled when I received an email advising me that I could do so this year.  My life long greed and passion for all things culinary has made me aware that this particular conference is the most important and prestigious in the entire world.  I had never really felt as though I was up to the standard required and went with no great expectations of being included in all the activities.  I thought all the serious foodie world would spot that I am a complete fraud blagging my way around the world of food in total ignorance of the real requirements to join their club.

Reader, I was so, so, wrong.

I took the train down to Oxford, it is only an hour on the train from where I live and with my senior railcard the return fare is only thirteen quid, less than the cost of the fuel and I had a suspicion that I would not need the car once there.  The train times were not exactly convenient - there is a gap from Pershore to Oxford during the week - which meant that I arrived in Oxford at 1230 but could not book in at St Catherine's College until 1500 so I nipped over to The Jam Factory near the station for a light lunch.  If anyone needs a decent simple light meal within five minutes of Oxford Station it is highly recommended - a sort of arts centre and cafe/bistro where a lovely baguette or wrap and a bowl of delicious crispy chips costs a fiver.  By Oxford standards that is excellent value.

I then went off to St Catherines (known as Catz) by taxi, a young American couple in the queue were carrying "foodie" type hessian bags so I asked if they were going to the Symposium, they were so we shared a taxi.  He turned out to be an employee of Goldman Sachs in London and she was a professor (what we call a lecturer) at Yale.  They had met at Harvard.  All this Ivy League stuff did nothing to increase my confidence, but the taxi only cost us three quid each when we split it so it was worth doing.   I walked into the Porter's Lodge to register and there before me was Elisabeth Luard who gave me a huge smile of welcome and introduced herself.  As if I did not know who she is - every single word she has ever written is on my shelves.  I started stammering and stuttering - totally star struck - and telling her that two of her books had reduced me to tears (Still Life and My Life as a Wife), that her Andalusian patatas bravas is the best in the world, that I loved her illustrations in the Waitrose magazine and that I wanted her to adopt me.  All without drawing breath.  She carried on smiling and led me across to the registration desk and handed me over to Patsy Iddison who is the Registrar and gave me my conference pack.  Complete with a name badge with my name on it, exactly the same as the one Elisabeth Luard and Patsy were wearing.  Not one with "fraud" after my name or in a different colour so the in crowd would know I was masquerading as someone who deserved to be there.   I was then led to the Porter's desk where I was allocated a room - my name was on his computer too - given a key, given a map of the campus and all the different places I needed to be were marked for me.  I went across to my allocated room and unpacked - a very simple basic room with an en-suite loo and shower.  I practically had to stand in the shower to use the washbasin, I certainly needed the shower door open in order to accommodate my substantial rear end when cleaning my teeth and bending over to rinse afterwards.

By this time it was about1630 and the first session was to be at 1700 in the form of  The Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture  by Professor Richard Wrangham in the Bernard Sunley Lecture Theatre.  Richard Wrangham is a Biological Anthropologist at Harvard.   I wandered across there clutching my orange folder (everyone else had the same colour) and sat in the middle row towards the centre and was soon joined by two women and a man, all of whom had been to previous Symposia.  One of the women was truly terrifying, if I dared to open my mouth she contradicted me but the other two were charming and backed me up.  The terrifying one was from New Zealand, the nice lady from Australia and the nice man from Canada. 

Professor Wrangham started by saying that he was delighted to be asked to give the most important lecture at the epicentre of food interest in the world and thanked the audience for deigning to listen to him because we were all more important than him.  Moi?  I don't think so but it was nice to be included in that welcome.  The lecture was given from a rostrum to the right of the stage, on the stage were sitting Paul Levy, Claudia Roden and Elisabeth Luard.   The lecture itself was absolutely fascinating and the basic theme was about the discovery of fire and the rise of cooked food throughout history.  We heard that animals seem to prefer cooked food and he demolished the Levi-Strauss theory of the 1960's saying that food should be eaten raw and was only cooked for symbolic reasons.  Apparently all animals will choose cooked over raw food and there is evidence to show that in humans a totally raw diet leads to amenorrhea in women.  He said that the human race has grown larger with an increased brain size because we learned to cook our foods and this puts us at the top of the chain.  We also have smaller digestive systems and teeth than other animals because they have adapted over the years to cope with a cooked and not a raw diet. Starch is gelatinized by cooking and protein denatured.  This means that more of the calories of cooked food are absorbed by the body.  The learned Professor also thinks the Atwater Convention (the system used to show the food values on labels) needs to be rethought since it does not take account of the extra calories the body takes in from cooked food as opposed to raw food.  We are being misled.  By this time I was seriously considering going on a raw food diet for the rest of the summer in order to lose a bit (OK then - a lot) of weight.  We were all given a handout about the Jane Grigson Trust and Library and because were all (well, all but one) obviously learned scholars invited to take advantage of the contents for our research. 

We then went on to watch a  DVD made by Barbara and Joe Wheaten on the theme of "Celebrations" which had loads of clips from paintings and stained glass windows on the subject.  This went very fast and the images were no sooner half registered on my brain than they were replaced by something else.  This was accompanied by very loud music.  I found it a bit confusing and distracting but sat quietly (yes, me) and waited for it to finish. 

We now had a half hour break before a champagne reception (Lanson) before supper so I nipped up to change from my travel clothes into a simple white tshirt and linen trousers dressed up with a bit of bling.  I had been unsure about a dress code so played safe, travelled in jeans (about half the people at the first lecture were also wearing jeans) and packed black, white and grey linen slacks and matching tshirts.  There were exactly right - smart casual was the order of the evenings. 

I went down to the Junior Common Room and was immediately accosted by Phil Iddison (a former Trustee and husband of Patsy), given a glass of champagne and chatted to for ten minutes.  It was very hot in the room so I sidled out and headed for the dining room which was much larger and airy and cooled down.  There were a couple of women sitting at the end of the first table and chatting casually so I asked if I might join them and was greeted enthusiastically and beckoned to sit down next to one of them.  They were really lovely, Virginia Hill introduced herself as an Australian food writer and Lidia Bastianich said that she had a restaurant in New York and specialised in Italian food.  We were soon joined by Julie Friedman, a retired lecturer from Wisconsin and Janine Kalowski who I think was her daughter but I might be wrong about that.  We settled down as a nice little manageable coven with the assistance of Alice Mullen whose poor husband Bob (they were from New Jersey) looked on happily and just listened with interest to our conversation - adding an odd nod. 

A chap called Jake Tilson makes menus for all the meals at the Symposia and they are real collectors' items.  I shall treasure all mine.  Forever.  Friday's Dinner was cooked by my old mate Shaun Hill (we did get together) with the generosity and assistance of Tim Kelsey and the staff of St Catz.  Tim Kelsey is the head chef at Catz and extremely co-operative with the Trustees when organising the Symposia.  The actual menu started with Seared Monkfish with Mustard and Cucumber Sauce, was followed by Roast Rack of Lamb with Summer Vegetables and Lamb Shoulder Stew and finished with a Buttermilk pudding with Summer Berries and Cardomom Honey Syrup.  The monkfish was fabulous, a creamy mustard grain sauce with ribbons of steamed cucumber.  The lamb racks were perfectly cooked and had already been cut in the kitchen, they were placed on top of a delicious lamb stew made with flagelot and broad beans with whole baby carrots.  The buttermilk pudding was a sort of light and luscious pannacotta.   So much for my raw food diet.  The summer berries were all uncooked so I think that will do for a start.  The accompanying wines were a 2008 Eroica Chateau Ste Michelle & Ernst Loosen from Washington Sate USA, A 2008 Pinot Noir Wittman from Rheinhessen and a 2002 Riesling Erdener Treppchen Dr Loosen from the Mosel. 

We lingered for a while over coffee and then all went our separate ways.  I found out the following day that Lidia is very famous in America, she has a television programme, was a judge on American Masterchef and has several restaurants and cookbooks published.  None of which I was told by her, we just had a lovely chat about our grandchildren and the importance of teaching them to cook.  We were pulling out the photographs, laughing about the mess they make in the kitchen and generally getting on very well.  I never saw her at breakfast, apparently she would slip off to The Randolph after dinner and sleep in luxury.  I slept in a student bed, very badly, but with a massive grin on my face and dreamt of buttermilk puddings and grandchildren.

I think that is enough for now.

I will return.


  1. Oh I can't wait to read more x x x

  2. Hi, I just found your blog and I am very exited about having a chance to read about the symposium. I was supposed to go, but health issues forced me to cancel my trip. :-(

    It seems you have a good account of the whole thing. I'll be back with more commenting when I have read it all! :-)

    Cake Blogger
    Copenhagen, Denmark