Tuesday, 10 July 2012

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.

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