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Symposium-going, Part 1

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is an annual conference which began nearly thirty years ago. Each year, it addresses a different aspect of the topic, as voted on by the symposium three years earlier. The brainstorming of topics is a public free-for-all, and can evolve in unexpected directions. This year, for example, "Filled and Wrapped" emerged the winner for the 2012 theme, over offal, meats, sweet, and a slew of other suggestions. But that was the end of the symposium, the last order-of-business before tea and home. Let me return to the beginning.

Friday dinner
We began on Friday, 6 pm, with sherry in the garden. The sherry was donated; this was an impressive theme of the conference. A great deal of the ingredients were donated by companies who thought the attendees worth cultivating. And for food professionals, they are, with major food writers, chefs, restauranteurs, and notable academics attending, in addition to the rest of us. One of the things I like about the symposium is that, despite the Big Names, it is very concerned with being open to everyone, especially amateurs and chefs; it does not want to be solely an academic conference.

Sherry, along with large, light, flakey parmesan straws, ends dipped in cayenne pepper, were the start of a meal orchestrated by Fergus Henderson, of St. John, the London restaurant. The dinner was in honor of Samuel Pepys and the anniversary of the Great Fire of London. The parmesan stood for the one which Pepys famously buried in his yard for safety during the fire, and the cayenne for the fire itself. They were a rare lightness in a sumptuously heavy, excessively meaty dinner (with vegetarian options available). Indeed, there were only two other non-meats built into the main portion of the meal: pickled beets with the first course, and sausage-looking whole, unskinned Jerusalem artichokes with the second.



Delicate, thin slices of ox tongue. Tender pickled white anchovies. Beets, bread, and bottarga, little golden-orange roundels of dried, salted, and pressed roe. There was Solear manzanilla to accompany it. We moved on to the second course and those at the table who had stolen away other groups' remnants from their serving platters no longer feared they would go hungry. Meat, meat, and more meat, piled extravagantly and variedly, led us to slow communal juggling of heavy platters. The venison and trotter pie was a work of art, its pastry ideal (although I lost its meats among the others on my plate and couldn't, therefore, appreciate them individually). Whole roast quails, a filled bowlful. Succulent slices of boiled leg of mutton, ornamented and enlivened further with caper sauce. Beef shins, a gawky serving platter with large shins sticking out of it, and excellent, rich, intense meat. A fricassée of rabbit with peas, one of the easiest dishes, logistically, to serve and savor. And the Jerusalem artichokes.

So much food! It seemed a shame to abandon so much of it, but, sated, we gave up. Still, after some time, some conversation, some loitering, a little bit of jello/jelly to finish seemed no bad thing. I joined the crowd bound for our banqueting course in another room. There, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but the Thames, laid out in mirrors over a large expanse of white table-cloth-covered table. That London was populated by numerous little abstract houses and factories, each in jelly, a whole variety of flavors and colors. Near the middle, on the northern bank of the river, was an abstract rendering of St. Paul's, towering - in jelly - over the houses. It was all made by Bompas & Parr, a company specializing in jelly.




This was, you may recall, a Pepysian/Great Fire meal. Another abstracted St. Paul's was brought in on a tray, presumably soused in something flammable, and, one blow torch later, burned splendedly for several minutes. The jellies were soft, needing a spoon to eat, but in lovely and unexpected flavors: elderflower and rhubarb were the two I tried. To accompany it was fortified dessert wine, lovely ones, one dark, sweet, and golden brown, another lighter, refreshing - thought still sweet - to cut through the heavy layers of meal we'd consumed. The only disappointment of the evening was missing the poetry reading; I heard the Campion songs, spinet and voice, but entirely missed the call announcing the poetry reading was beginning in an unlabeled room. Suddenly, we conversationalists had the room - and a rather large table of dessert wines - to ourselves.

Saturday morning papers
Morning brought the start of the symposium papers, starting with a lively, engaging talk by Simon Schama, connecting tongues to words to eating, from eating one's tongue to biting one's tongue to futuristic recipes to discussions of food which entice one to hunger, the joy of reading recipes. In the next session, a plenary again, three speakers addressed aspects of food's contextual meanings. One, a linguist specializing in pragmatics, insightfully compared instructions for setting up a television to the instructions contained in a recipe. Another, by an American, showed works of art incorporating food and giving them contextual meanings, but seemed oblivious to the regularly bandied-about sexual connotations which had to be going through the heads of most of the English in the audience. The last was about rescuing the "authentic voice of the common people" and their cuisine.

The morning finished off with short parallel session. Session hopping is usual at the symposium, so I began with a paper on the way Japanese use language to organize and conceive of major foods ("cooks are praised for their ability not to cook", i.e. make the ingredients seem other than they are), and finished with a useful, if awkwardly-presented, session on the difficulties of describing food. The speaker had given eight food writers samples of champagne jelly and asked them to describe it. Strikingly, most described its texture, its mouthfeel, with no hint of taste. The one I found most evocative compared it to a variety of commerical sweets. Part of the point of the paper was that our tastebuds encompass different ranges. We will each taste different parts of the same food, and large numbers of people are unable to taste what makes a food distinctive. Apparently, 30% of the population can't smell truffles; 7% are unable to perceive the smell of "off" fish.

Saturday lunch
Dinner weren't the only spectacular meals at the symposium this year. Lunches were too. Saturday's was themed Turkish, lovely light foods, all vegetarian except for the doner kebabs, with feta-onion-green tomato salad, fava bean dip, and spicy walnut dip to slather on bread. I cannot do dessert justice and the menu - one of many impressively-designed menus - does not discuss it. It was milky, light, and layered, and sided with pismaniye gullac, which would be a new addiction should I be so foolish as to learn how to make it. It's thick strands of a cotton candy-like substance, flavored with almond and vanilla, delicate, melting, and more-ish. We had bowlfuls off it to top up the decorative amount already on our plates. With coffee, were somewhat odd sweet walnut and grape jelly "sausages".

This is quite long enough already, so I'll post more of it tomorrow.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
desperance
Sep. 14th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
Want more, please.

Also want to be there next year. Is it horrendously expensive?
owlfish
Sep. 14th, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC)
By conference standards, yes. By the standards of eating amazing meals for two days with copious alcohol, not at all. This year was £250 for two nights' accommodation, four amazing meals, and the conference infrastructure, i.e. papers, tea, coffee, biscuits. The meals are what made it easily worth it.

Next year's theme is Cured, Smoked, and Fermented Foods. It's moving to July for the foreseeable future. Next year it's 9-11 July.
rosamicula
Sep. 14th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
Are you going next year? I'd quite like to....
owlfish
Sep. 14th, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
I have every intention of going, yes!
gillo
Sep. 14th, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
My mouth is watering just reading this, drat you!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )