In September I went to food history geek wonderland, namely the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. It was my first time attending and if you’re thinking about going next year, I highly recommend it.
Each year the Symposium has a theme, alternating between concrete and abstract ideas. For example, this year’s theme was “Food and Language,” an abstract idea, and next year will highlight the more concrete “Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods.”
The event is put on by the Oxford Symposium Trust which holds a fund raising picnic each year on the first day of the Symposium. This year to go with the theme, the picnic was based on the Oxbridge Luncheon in Virginia Woof’s book A Room of One’s Own. It was held at the University Parks Cricket Pavilion (see photo above).
The menu was created by Elisabeth Luard, Geraldene Holt, and Derek Muircroft. The gathering was particularly decorated by the presence of Mrs. Woolf herself, in the personage Ms. Ellie Piercy, late of the Globe Theatre. She was received with much enthusiasm by the assembled crowd as she read from A Room of One’s Own and some of her letters; including one to her sister in which she described the stressful day she had to sack her cook. The menu was as follows:
Individual game pies served with spiced pear chutney, salmagundi, and potato salad with Old English Salad Cream.
Glorious Fruits and Friandises
Isis and other cheese by the Oxford Cheese Company
Rice puddings by Mrs. Geraldene Holt
Accompanying wines donated by Penfolds, Peter Lehmann, and Yalumba
It was a lovely late summer day and the historic surroundings only added to the bonhomie. I found my fellow symposiasts — some of whom are very well known in the food world — very welcoming, encouraging this new comer to plunge right into the lively conversation.
Despite the exquisite game pies, I tried to eat lightly because I knew dinner that evening was going to be a real treat. Chef Fergus Henderson, of St. John Restaurant in London, created a dinner based on the diaries of Samuel Pepys, in honor of Harlan Walker, the long-time editor of the Symposium’s proceedings.
Here’s the menu:
Parmesan Cheese Straws and Champagne
Ox Tongue & Beetroot
White Pickled Anchovies
Bread and Butter
Served with Solear Manzanilla (Bodegas Barbadillo, SL)
Venison & Trotter Pie
Boiled Leg of Mutton with Caper Sauce
Fricasée of Rabbit with Peas
Whole Roast Jerusalem Artichokes
Served with Château Bahans Haut-Brion 1999 & Clarendelle rouge 2004.
St. Paul’s Aflame by Jelly Mongers Bompas & Parr
Served with Málaga No 1 Selección Especial 2006 & Alvear Solera 1927 Px (Bodegas Alvear)
Mr. Pepys’s diary is one of the few contemporary reports we have of the Great Fire of London in 1666. When he saw that the fire was coming close to his house he dug pits in the garden to bury some of his prized possessions, including his wine and a wheel of parmesan cheese. This is what inspired Mr. Henderson to create the Parmesan Cheese Straws we had for an appetizer.
The food was glorious. It was all served family style at the long tables in the dining hall at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. It really put me in mind of the “groaning boards” of yore described in historical novels. And best of all, I got to eat it surrounded by historians, cookbook writers, journalists, and food enthusiasts of all stripes. Here are a few pictures, to give you the idea:
The most exciting part of the evening was the unveiling of the banquet course entitled St. Paul’s Aflame, which was a representation of the Great Fire of London in jelly (that’s Jello to us Americans). It was made by Bompas & Parr, two young men who have recently revived the art of jelly making in the UK.
It was presented on a long rectangular table with St. Paul’s Cathedral done in orange jelly; the river Thames represented by curving pieces of mirror traveling down the table; and as far as the eye could see little houses of jelly in different shades of red and orange representing the burning city of London. The jellies were made with natural fruit juices and had just the right amount of sweetness; very different from the neon green Jello of my youth. And of course there was the wobbly factor. After all the wine we had at dinner, we did enjoy poking at our little houses and watching them jiggle.
At this point, the Symposium proper had not even begun! Stay tuned for more reflections on Oxford, 2009 soon.