Oxford's Intellectual Feast

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.

Tongue Biting

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.

Darra Goldstein, editor in chief of Gastronomica, followed with a thought-provoking and amusing slide show demonstrating that the meaning of even the most common food images may often be in the eye of the beholder. A Turkish lunch followed the first parallel lecture sessions. Anissa Helou provided the recipes for the delicious muhamara, spicy roast pepper and walnut spread, and imam beyeldi-, tiny fried eggplants in chunky tomato and onion sauce, among other dishes, which were cooked by Tim Kelsey and the St. Cat's staff. Aylin Öney Tan brought amazing sweets from Turkey: The silky pişmaniye threads and walnut-filled creamy gűllaç were a revelation.

The many interesting papers delivered during the afternoon's parallel sessions included three that explored the roots and variations of several Eastern Mediterranean dishes. One was the paper I did with Anissa Helou, describing foods like borani, biriyan, halva, dolma etc., which may differ greatly from one country to the next although they share similar names.

Enter the French

Saturday's banquet, "The Language of French Gastronomy, from the Raw to the Cooked," was conceived by Raymond Blanc and executed by his team at the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, five young chefs, and St. Cat's kitchen. The "raw" was an exquisite tomato essence served in a tea cup with a skinned cherry tomato rolled in smoky black salt flakes. Confit of salmon with ribbons of Japanese radish and cucumber with horseradish sauce was wonderfully delicate, and we wondered how the cooks managed to plate and serve so many perfect dishes.

I loved the idea of presenting family-style the main course of braised ox cheek with shallots and wild mushrooms, accompanied by mashed potatoes and root vegetables in three different platters to be shared among six people. It was an earthy and enticing combination of tastes and textures, perfectly spiced. I thought I could not eat another bite, but I couldn't keep myself from tasting all five of the cheeses that followed: Charolais, Saint Marcellin, Morbier, Comte d' Estive, and Bleu de Gex (chosen by Patricia Michelson and donated by her company, La Fromagerie) with slices of Blanc's excellent walnut bread. The dessert of apple and cider mousse with tart Granny Smith sorbet was the perfect finale for this sumptuous French dinner.

Sunday's plenary session was chaired by Raymond Sokolov with well-known participants, editors, and authors: Judith Jones, who was Julia Child's editor; Susan Friedland, editor of the Symposium's proceedings; author Jill Norman; and food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. They discussed the grim landscape of cookbook publishing both in England and the U.S. Jones expressed her loathing for the plethora of un-edited, bad recipes that flood the Web in various food blogs. Can an author be protected from the plagiarists who often take whatever they like and post it on their blogs, wondered the editors? If it is an entire book, yes, but in the case of individual recipes it is very difficult to establish a copyright; such was the conclusion I drew following Joan Alcock's and Cathy Kaufman's presentations at a panel chaired by Barbara Kafka the previous morning.

I am sorry I had to miss the traditional funny little play that Alicia Rios and Raymond Sokolov provide at the end of every Symposium. I wanted to visit the gardens at Raymond Blanc's Manoir, so I didn't attend the "Plate of Fresh Jewish Maidens with Potatoes."

From next year on the Oxford Symposium will move from September to July, a date most people find more convenient. Next year's topic will be Cured, Smoked, and Fermented Foods, and it will take place at St Cat's from July 9 to 11, 2010. I don't guarantee the food! But I think I can promise an intellectual feast.