Posts Tagged ‘oxford’

Photo by MPerel

When you visit Oxford you are surrounded by history of all types. Some of the colleges were founded in the 13th Century, and their famous alumni are too numerous to count, stretching across all imaginable professions including historians, chemists, writers, explorers, politicians and more. One quite pleasurable way to make a connection with some of these denizens of the past is to visit their old stomping grounds for a pint or two.

There are quite a number of very old pubs in Oxford, some dating from the 15th Century. With the resurgence of Real Ale, the selection of drink at most pubs has greatly improved over the last 20 years or so. Look for the hand pumped taps to try some local specialties.

When I come to Oxford for the Symposium on Food and Cookery, I always try to visit a couple of pubs I haven’t been to before. This year I tried out the Eagle and Child which is in a building built in the 16th Century and became a pub in approximately 1650.

Notably, the Eagle and Child is associated with several writers who studied and/or taught at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. They were part of a group called the Inklings which met from about 1933-1963 at Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College to read aloud unfinished works. The group also had a standing lunch date on Tuesday afternoons at the Eagle and Child (or the Bird and Baby as they liked to call it). They would sit in the then back room (the pub has since been extended in the rear), known as the Rabbit Room.

The name of the pub is supposedly derived from the eagle and child on the coat of arms of the Earl of Derby. However, the Earl’s lands are in Lancashire and there is also a pub called the Eagle and Child there which used to lie on the Earl’s estate, so who knows?

Legend has it that one of the Earls of Derby back in the 14th Century had not succeeded in fathering a male heir (he and his wife had one daughter). Trying to ensure the continuation of his line, he had a dalliance with a noblewoman whom he kept in style nearby. This liaison resulted in the birth of a bastard son. The Earl then arranged to have his son “found” in an eagle’s nest dressed in clothing appropriate to a noble child. The story of a child found in an eagle’s nest is common to several mythologies of ancient Europe including Norway and France, so perhaps this is where the Earl got the idea. In any case, his wife agreed to adopt the child and raise it as their son and heir.

While sipping my pint, I got to wondering if Mr. Tolkien created the giant eagle that rescues Galdalf from Sarumon’s tower in The Lord of The Rings on a Tuesday afternoon while drinking at the Eagle and Child.


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Oxford Cricket Pavilion / photo by bishib70

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
Roast Quail
Boiled Leg of Mutton with Caper Sauce
Fricasée of Rabbit with Peas
Beef Shins
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:


White Pickled Anchovies


A Bowl of Quail

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.


St. Paul's Aflame


Jelly Houses of London

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.

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I finally found some open WiFi here in Oxford. You’d think there’d be more in a university town. The term doesn’t start until October so maybe that’s why.

I’ve really been enjoying the history and architecture and this afternoon I’m off to the beginning of the Oxford Sympsium with the fund raising picnic based on the Oxbridge luncheon in Viginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Below is a photo of The Angel and Greyhound, a lovely pub where I had some more Real Ale last night. I tried a beer called Iceberg from the Titanic Brewing Company. Cheers!

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A Cookie Alphabet / photo by Christian Guthier

A Cookie Alphabet / photo by Christian Guthier

In my last post I wrote about the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which I’ll be attending next week.

As well as feeding the mind, the symposium is known for special meals that are created in accordance with each year’s theme. This year on Friday evening, Fergus Henderson, chef of world renowned St. John Restaurant, will cook a meal based on the Diaries of Samuel Pepys. It will be followed by a traditional banqueting course of of jellies (that’s jello to us Americans) representing the Great Fire of London, by Bompas & Parr, a pair of young “jellymongers” who have recently set up shop in London (I’ll try to get some photos, I promise). Saturday night’s dinner will be created by Chef Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saison, a well known French restaurant in nearby Oxfordshire, and will highlight the language of French gastronomy, from the raw to the cooked.

Each year there is also a benefit picnic to raise money for the non-profit organization which runs the symposium. The 2009 picnic will be modeled after the “Oxbridge Luncheon” in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

If everything works out technologically, I will post brief reports from the symposium here on Comestibles and on Twitter, so as they say, stay tuned. I’m also looking forward to Real Ale, classic pub food and ancient British cheeses while I visit the Cotswolds.

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Carfax Tower, Oxford / photo by Jim Linwood

Carfax Tower, Oxford / photo by Jim Linwood

Last year one of my favorite bloggers, Janet Clarkson over at The Old Foodie mentioned that she was going to a Symposium in Oxford, UK all about food history. I was thrilled to find out that such a thing existed and put it on my list of things to do really soon.

Well, really soon is here. Later this week I leave for the UK for two weeks. The symposium itself is only for a few days but I couldn’t resist spending a little time in London first and then, well Oxford is right next door to the Cotswolds which I’ve never seen, so why not turn it into a vacation?

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is an event which has been held annually since 1981 (although smaller versions of it took place as early as 1979). It was originally founded and co-chaired by the late Alan Davidson, food historian and author of The Oxford Companion to Food and Dr Theodore Zeldin, a celebrated social historian.

From the very beginning the attendees (or symposiasts if you like) have been a curious mix of people from many different professions including of course historians, chefs and cookbook writers, but also mathematicians, chemists, and amateur enthusiasts of all stripes. Davidson and Zeldin realized immediately that they had hit upon a very inter-discipinary topic that needed a place for everyone to come together and share their ideas. The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery became that place. It sure sounds like food history geek heaven to me.

Each year a broad subject is chosen to focus the discussion. Past subjects have included: Eggs, Nurture, The Meal, Wild Foods: Hunters and Gatherers, and Food and Morality. This year the theme is Food and Language. A call for papers went out months ago and over 40 people will be presenting their work over the course of the symposium. To whet your appetite, here are some of the papers being presented: “Sex, Food, and Valentines Day: Language of Food – Language of Love: A linguistic analysis of Valentines Day menus in a selection of Parisian restaurants at present”; “Toward a Phenomenological Semiotics of Cuisine: Neanderthal Pictographs as a Universal Language of Cooking”; “The Rhetoric of American Restaurant Menus and the Use of French”; “Telling Porkies: The Nomenclature of the Pig and its Parts”; and “Hidden Voices from the Culinary Past: Oral History as a Tool for Food Historians”.

Before I leave for the UK, I’ll be posting more here about the proceedings, including a description of the the rather extraordinary meals which are scheduled, so come back and visit.

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