Move your mouse to either end of the slide show to view photos of the food at the Oxford Symposium
The select group of people who take part at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery expect to be intellectually stimulated, educated, and inspired, listening to lectures and taking part in discussions that dissect all sorts of food-related subjects according to each year's theme. Ironically, however, they hardly expect to have a memorable gastronomic experience.
Last weekend, though, for the first time in its 30-year history, the record number of about 240 participants at the Symposium on Food and Language had the unprecedented and unexpected pleasure of tasting amazing dishes prepared by Fergus Henderson and Raymond Blanc, among others.
The impressive building, the gardens and the stylish dining hall of St. Catherine's College, which has hosted the Symposium for the last four years, is a far cry from our previous nondescript, dark locations. It was designed in the early '60s by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, who created not just the buildings but all the furnishings, fixtures, and even the college's forks, spoons, and knives, objects that are now considered classics of modern design. "He even designed special flatware for left-handed people," Paul Levy, the Symposium's co-chair with Claudia Roden, told me.
A Restoration Feast
Fergus Henderson set the tone on Friday night with his English Restoration-inspired dinner entitled 'A Samuel Pepys Feast," dedicated to Harlan Walker, who was for many years the Symposium's editor. Right down his "Nose to Tail" alley, Henderson brought to the tables platters of perfectly tender, thinly sliced ox tongue accompanied with bowls of lightly pickled beetroots. Bottarga and Spanish pickled sardines followed, with copious amounts of bread and butter--the chef is known for not being shy when it comes to "the good butter," as he calls it.
Can an author be protected from the plagiarists who often take whatever they like and post it on their blogs, wondered the editors?
The second course was an absolutely amazing, though not terribly photogenic, venison and trotter pie. A bowl of roast quail followed, and diners didn't hesitate to grab the birds with their fingers. The fricassee of rabbit with peas, the only green note of the lot, was irresistible. And the beef shins that were brought last, with a plate of tiny roasted Jerusalem artichokes, were scary-looking--but unbelievable! The pieces of succulent, slow-roasted meat we picked from the bone had a flavor I will never forget. I hardly ever eat meat, but Henderson's dishes were something else entirely. I'm glad I can't taste such food more often--otherwise I would surely turn into an avid carnivore.
Before dinner, as we enjoyed glasses of Solear Manzanilla in the garden, we were served parmesan straws, created especially by Henderson as a reminder of a passage from Pepys's diaries in which he writes that he buried his wine bottles and his parmesan wheels to save them from the London fire. To end the feast, Henderson used the expertise of Bompas & Parr, the famous English jellymongers who claim to "operate in the space between food and architecture, with projects that explore how the taste of food is altered through synaesthesia, performance and setting." They created "St Paul's Aflame," a jellied reproduction of the famous monument which they ceremoniously burned with a blow-torch. The multi-colored jelly miniature homes we were served were slightly tart and fruity--exactly what we craved after the wonderful meat feast.
The charming Simon Schama--the English historian and professor at Columbia University who is best known for writing and hosting many BBC documentary series, among them the 15-part History of Britain--gave an inspired and captivating lecture in his keynote address, "Mouthing Off: Reflections on Eating and Uttering."
While expressing his admiration for Henderson, who brought modern English Gastronomy to its pre-Industrial Revolution roots with his Nose to Tail cooking, he was somewhat skeptical about our beef tongue course. Everything starts with the tongue, he said, one of the most important parts of our body, and although we may devour the oversized and thinly sliced ox tongue, we would certainly be very reluctant to consume the tongue of lamb or pig, similar in size to our own. At one point Schama made fun of Dan Barber's "lecture-like menus," saying that as a rule he never orders from a menu a dish that includes two verbs in its description.