The Oxford Food Symposium can only be described as a whirlwind meeting of international minds. This annual event has long been renowned for bringing together a truly eclectic mix of scholars, chefs, scientists, anthropologists and committed amateurs from all corners of the food world for a weekend’s serious discussion on the theme at hand.
This year, food and markets was the central topic. It not only informed the discussions but also the lunch breaks and evening festivities, which included a leftover lunch, directed by Food Artists Joseph Michael Patricio and Alicia Rios, as well as a Nordic Summer Banquet.
We asked old and new voices of the symposium to share their experiences of the event; the highlights, lowlights, food and downright obscure discussions.
Peter Hertzmann is the creator and illustrator of à la carte, an online testament to his obsession with French cookery: its preparation, materials, history, politics, and culture. 2014 was Peter’s 5th time presenting at the Oxford Food Symposium. This year he presented Twenty-First Century Meat Markets.
Last year the subject was Kitchen Knives: the New Bling. When he’s not researching, writing, or teaching cookery classes, Peter can be found trying to talk everyone out of buying high-priced knives. He also is the author of Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual and produces a weekly blog.
Darina Allen established the Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1983 with her brother Rory O’Connell. Author of over 10 books and regular television presenter, her main passion and daily task is to impart her knowledge to the students at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Last year Ballymaloe hosted the second annual Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine.
Keelin Tobin is a newly trained chef. She has a masters in Anthropology of Food with a particular interest in food waste. She is the winner of the Oxford Symposium Young Chef Award and is soon to commence a research MA studying the impact of the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Trine Hahnemann is a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of six cookbooks, including The Scandinavian Cookbook and The Nordic Diet. Trine loves food and believes it should be prepared and enjoyed with respect, great care and love. It is a vital form of our culture.
On the symposium…
Attendees at the Oxford Food Symposium are extraordinary people who are passionate about incredibly bizarre things. I used to sit there and think ‘some of these interests are so obscure, I wonder how many people here know how to scramble an egg?’ But now there really are some of the best chefs involved. Some people love to cook and some people are into research, the OFS really is a vehicle for people to come together and share what ever aspect of food and food history turns them on.
Like attending a first opera or a Beckett play, first time attendees of the OFS seldom ‘get it’. Most come expecting an academic conference and are surprised to discover something at times more equivalent to an old-time college variety show. In its best tradition, this year’s symposium was just as quirky and fun as previous editions. It was also informative, and remains for me the best food-related meeting of the many I attend each year.
First established in 1981, the symposium attracts a loyal following. As a first time participant this year, meeting previous attendees was immensely valuable to me. From day one, I felt welcome. Trestle tables, and carefully selected food and wine had a wonderful effect. It’s no surprise to me why so many people return!
It was a real honour to give the Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture. Jane used to come to Ballymaloe often, she last came for a lovely party for my husband just before she died. I remember for her first visit there was a huge degree of nail biting. We made pithiviers with pistachios and heart terrine from her book. We were terrified, but she confessed to me that she wasn’t actually that good at making pastry, so, I ended up teaching her my way of making puff pastry – it’s not actually hard. She was a wonderful mix of practical and scholarly!
The Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture was given by Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, a fellow chef and Cork woman. She gave a presentation describing her experience setting up a farmers’ market in Middleton, Cork fourteen years ago. She detailed her inspiration and motivation for doing so, the challenges she faced and overcame, and referred to specific individuals that have gained personally from their involvement with the market. This was presented with her usual gusto and enthusiasm – a wonderful start.
On food and markets…
For my interests, a number of papers stood out. Doug Douda’s Markets Boom While Cooking Crashes: What Are We Finding At Farmers Markets? centred on the concept that as the number of farmers market in the United States has grown, the number of families no longer preparing the majority of their meals in their own kitchens has grown at a faster rate. For me, the takeaway message from this presentation was that most farmers markets have little to do with farmers selling produce grown on their own farms. Ready-to-eat foods and value-added products make up a majority of an individual market’s sellers, and in many cases, the farmers are resellers as well as producers. ‘Farmers markets’ are now more a matter of perception than reality.
Oh, the talks? There was an incredibly scary one, Kylie Sago: Eating the Inedible – The Colonial Marketplace at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, where she talked about eating nail and glass by accident. And The Fishmongers of London’s Street Markets from 1840s to the Present where they shared why fishmongers and market people would sing. Also, Janet Beizer: The Emperor’s Plate: Marketing Leftovers in 19th century Paris told how some servants collected up the food from the plates at Les Halles and sold them on to those lower in society – say a turkey leg with just one bite taken from it.
Although Andrew Coe’s written paper is entitled Blood and Sawdust: The Kosher Poultry Racket of New York, he chose to use his presentation time to discuss the rackets in the New York produce industry during the first two decades of the twentieth century. For those of us brought up with the facts and legends of Chicago gangsters during the prohibition era, both the paper and the presentation were real eye-openers. (Hint: Not all gangsters were Italian.)
For me, Jeanette Neeson: From Nothing Came Something. The history behind how we used to pick berries is very close to my heart, since it was part of my own childhood and berries are a big part of Scandinavia’s food culture. She ended on a very inspiring note that I used to open up my own session: ‘Nothing does not exist’, which is the whole idea behind my paper. Nordic countries had a strong food culture before the New Nordic trend, it did not come out of nothing, there was a market for it built up over decade. So I thank Jeanette for that quote.
Many presentations were centred on the past, both distant and recent. From the development of coins in ancient Greek markets, to the comparison of food markets and prostitution markets as portrayed in the novel Fanny Hill, to the depiction of markets in art, to the gender domination of certain old markets, markets were presented in a multitude of ways.
Erica Peters on Markets, Gender, and Translation in Turn-of-the Twentieth Century San Francisco and Southern Vietnam really stood out. This historical study provided insights into shared experiences of people in particular space and time. Erica teased out norms and contradictions that existed, creating vivid imagery of market life well before my time! I attended sessions presented by Doug Douda and Dan Strehl, both speaking about farmers’ markets in the US. Doug dealt with factors that account for the recent explosion in the popularity of farmers’ markets in the US, stating that for many the farmers’ market is seen as … ‘a place to do well by doing good.’ Dan introduced me to the term ‘agricultural arts’; grown stuff basically.
Jane Levi, in her presentation titled: The Marketing Of and Market For Ethical Food, used organic food as an example of the difference between public perception and the reality of the market place. She ends with the question: ‘To what extent has the meaning of ‘organic’ been subverted to the market’s ends, and does its new meaning render it meaningless?’ This conclusion has been suggested frequently since government regulators have provided carve-outs for various industries to avoid the spirit (and reality) of organic farming, but Levi in her intelligent discussion brings a new way of looking at the issue.
On the food…
The Symposium constitutes a full 48-hour experience. There’s two midday meals and two evening meals that are always unique (if not always fantastic). This year’s meals were for the most part better than average except for, in my opinion, an ill-conceived performance-art lunch on the last day that had the Symposiasts eating leftovers off of foil-covered tables with their fingers. All the time I sat there wishing for a piece of flat bread to aid in my voyage to the long-forgotten period in my life before I learned to use a knife and fork, I attempted to remind myself of the fantastic Russian-inspired food from an earlier meal during the weekend.
All the food was fabulous, Trine’s banquet, Russian Revels from Anya von Bremzen’s book on Soviet cooking, the Market dinner had a real sparkle. Let me tell you, the food has got a lot better in recent years.
I loved cooking at the symposium: the site, the team and the people. I think the Nordic banquet was a great fit because of this year’s theme: markets, famers’ market, markets interpreted in many ways are about real food. My supper was all about the supper you cook at home, I used everyday ingredients and cooked a supper like I would do for guests at home. I highlighted what is in season and available to us. For me it was a perfect match. All the produce came from local food businesses in UK and DK, and everything was cooked by me and my sister, so I felt we matched the symposium’s idea.
I also immensely enjoyed the waste lunch, I think, it should be done every year. It’s such a strong symbolic gesture and a good idea economically.
I was lucky enough to cook alongside Trine Hanemann and her sister Silla, creating a Nordic banquet for the Saturday evening. On the Sunday I was in the kitchen with Performance Artist Joseph Peppe Patricio and Eve Hemingway of Apples and Pears Supper Club in London. As food waste is a topic I hold dear, I was delighted that Sunday’s lunch combined use of the leftovers from the weekend with ritual and performance, as well as some tongue-in-cheek humour. Head Chef Tim Kelsey of St Catherine’s College, Oxford and his team of chefs were remarkably accommodating in this act of faith. They dealt with the weekend-long invasion of their kitchen with professionalism and good cheer.
On the post market fanfare…
The after-dinner events this year of food-related karaoke and a totally unruly ‘name the street food’ contest lived up to the symposium’s reputation for quirkiness. Maybe not as news worthy as the time the great fire of London was recreated in moulded gelatine, but much more satisfying.
And the after dinner entrainment! There was a Spanish food sing along and a quiz, that was real fun – guess the street-food. I’ve got some ideas for Ballymaloe!
Though the symposium has seriousness at its core, the evenings provide a chance for more casual fun and games. The food-themed karaoke and name that street-food game were enjoyed by many. A number of books were launched over the course of the weekend, including; Beyond Bratwurst: A History of Food in Germany by Ursula Heinzelmann, Tom Jaine’s new edition of The Oxford Companion to Food, and The Cultivation of Taste: Chefs and the Organisation of Fine Dining by Christel Lane. The wining and dining over the course of the symposium was immense. It was tied in well with the symposium’s topic.
On seizing the opportunity…
There are a number of awards and grants associated with the symposium. It is a great honour for me to have been awarded this year’s Young Chef Award. This award offers an assisted place at the weekend, in addition to the chance to work behind-the-scenes alongside established visiting chefs. As you can imagine, I was heady with excitement to be able to work in the kitchen at such an event. This is a wonderful opportunity for any emerging chef! I would strongly recommend any interested persons to apply for the awards and grants available.
No matter what expectations a symposium newcomer arrives with, they will probably not be met. Which does not mean the attendee will leave disappointed. On the contrary, most rookies (and veterans) are sad to see the weekend come to an end and are not quick to mentally to return to the reality of the world outside the symposium.
For more information, take a look at www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk
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