2020 Herbs and Spices

Dill is sown as much for cooks as for doctors. . . .and if we are to believe the Greek authors, it is so nourishing that the Masters of the Games would in no way allow the food of the athletes to be without dill.” Bartolomeo Platina: De honesta voluptate

Paper-proposals are invited on the culinary uses of Herbs and Spices, our subject for the 2020 Oxford Symposium. While it would be impossible to overlook the use of herbs and spices for medicinal or religious reasons, we ask that paper-proposers examine the subject in the context of food and cookery.

Although botanists make no distinction between a herb and a spice, we are considering herbs (in modern usage though formerly applied to all green crops) to indicate the leafy parts of a plant including stalks and flowers whether in fresh or preserved form. Spices – usually though not always used in dried form – are the fragrance-carriers derived from every other part of the plant including seeds, arils, bark, flower-buds, stigmas, roots and resins. These differences in typical shelf-life have cast herbs and spices in different roles on the world stage.

Subjects addressed could include explorations of the appetite for spices, whether undergirding the spice trade, voyages of discovery and colonialism, or how these events spurred economic, cultural or gastronomic change, for good or bad. Questions of regional preference might also be examined, as might the universal taste for pepperiness that powered the rapid spread of the fiery capsicums in the post-colombian exchange.

Herbs, a group not traditionally seen as a trade-item when used fresh and available for foraging, often helped sustain the rural poor. Subjects for examination might include herbalists and herbals; monastic herb gardens and their products including digestifs that form part of the meal; culinary uses of herbs and spices in religious as well as secular traditions. What’s the effect of chemical alterations – application of heat, cold, distillation, maceration – that result from processing, whether natural or artificial? Please note, we exclude recreational cocktails and their contemporary constituents (vermouths, gins, and the like) from the scope of the topic.

Questions might also be asked of the evidence for the inclusion of botanical flavourings in the cooking pots of our prehistoric ancestors? Whether tastes in flavourings are altered by chefs and food-writers? To what extent, historically and now, has the movement of individuals and populations with strong flavour-preferences affected regional cooking? Examination of individual herbs and spices could also prove rewarding, as might the origins and composition of place-specific spice-mixes such as ras-al-hanout and garam masala. How are substitutes and artificial flavourings used? How do our senses perceive flavours in herbs and spices in reality and in memory? Literary references, not excluding those in cookbooks, could prove a rewarding source of study: remembrance of things past was the gift of lime-blossom tea.

In short, herbs and spices are not simply a matter of adding a pinch of this or that to the cooking pot for flavour – they’re the fragrances remembered from childhood, the perfumes that carry us through adulthood, the tastes that tell us who we are.

The topic for 2021 is ‘Food and Imagination’ and the topic for 2022 is ‘Food away from the Table’.