V-Symp guest chef David Tanis shares his Oxford Food Symposium Experience

My Oxford Symposium Experiences Thus Far
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David Tanis. Photo credit: Randal Breski

My first Oxford Symposium experience was in 2019. I had long wanted to attend, but the opportunity never arose until last year, when I was graciously invited by Darina Allen, the great force behind The Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland.

Ballymaloe, I must say, is an incredible institution—there really is no cookery school like it. I had been spending a couple of months’ sabbatical as guest chef there, and when Darina proposed I accompany her to Oxford, I jumped at the chance.

Should you ever get the chance to travel with Darina, by the way, do so without hesitation, and not only for the lively, intelligent conversation and camaraderie. She will have packed an incredible picnic box, filled with all manner of edibles, from sweets to savories, so eating airplane food will be out of the question, as will starving on the bus ride from London to Oxford. And there will be smoked salmon and buttered brown bread, too.

Arriving at St Catz was like a dream. I kept bumping into old friends and meeting new ones, as we sipped wine on the lawn before dinner. There was one surprise after another. How did I not know that my dear friend Gamze Ineceli from Istanbul was one of the organizing trustees? I was thrilled to see her and a group of Turkish friends.

Here was the fearless, prolific Naomi Duguid; the humble genius Harold McGee; Spanish food expert Maria Jose Sevilla, whom I hadn’t seen in years; nutrition scholar Marion Nestle; and of course the wonderful Claudia Roden and Elisabeth Luard.

There was Aglaia Kremezi, my good friend from Greece, who organized a dinner with beautifully seasoned frugal ingredients—incredible braised lamb and potatoes, among other treats. The women of the Hubb Community Kitchen in London gave us a beautiful Middle Eastern vegetarian lunch. A glorious feast was prepared by the chef and staff of El Mural de los Poblanos, from Puebla, Mexico. And David Matchett of London’s Borough Market presented a lunch with an assortment of women-produced cheeses, breads and other sundry delights.

The dining hall was filled with the most enthusiastic group of drinkers and diners, and the room absolutely hummed with conviviality. And I haven’t even touched on the non-dining hours spent in engaging seminars and brilliant presentations, all dealing with various aspects of Food and Power, the 2019 theme.

As the weekend wound down, I found myself in conversation with another good friend, Jill Norman, the well-known British editor and cookbook author. We spoke about the Symposium’s theme for 2020, Herbs and Spices. Jill is an authority in that field, and I have long used her guides to herbs and spices for reference in my own work. Before long, we were proposing to collaborate in some fashion to produce a meal for the 2020 sessions! And somehow our proposal was approved, though the menu was far from realized.

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Photo credit: Randal Breski

A concept I have played with quite a bit is the notion of letting one spice or herb dominate in a dish, rather than a blend or mixture. Not that there’s anything wrong with spice blends—indeed the world’s greatest cuisines depend upon them. What would Indian meals be without masalas of every sort, for instance, or Chinese roast pork without 5-spice powder? Yet, sometimes concentrating on a single herb or spice can be pleasant; though it is hardly revolutionary, it’s interesting. Black pepper is a spice that appeals to me from this vantage point. Chew on a peppercorn and you’ll see it is much more than a one-dimensional flavor. It is a spice with great depth.

Long story short, I came up with a menu called One Good Spice that would feature a unique herb or spice in each course: coriander, dill, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, saffron and ginger would all be represented, but separately. I would write the recipes and Jill would supply commentary on all the elements.

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Photo credit: Randal Breski

Then suddenly it was 2020 and a deadly worldwide virus meant international travel would cease to be possible. The Oxford Food Symposium, however, would still take place—just not in Oxford. Technology would make it possible for us to convene virtually. But how would we dine together?

I left Manhattan and moved into a little house in upstate New York to get away from the crowds. There I wrote the recipes and made a video of their preparation. They’ll be part of the 2020 V-Symp, as it is now affectionately called. Though I’d love to cook this meal for you, I hope you will find the recipes useful and make them at home. With luck next year we’ll gather again at St Catz.

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Photo credit: Aglaia Kremezi

The Stubborn Cuisine of Fogo Island

Symposium Chair, Elisabeth Luard, introduces our Friday evening v-chefs
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Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada. Photo courtesy of Fogo Island Inn

Not all chefs with a barrowful of culinary laurels would consider taking on a challenge such the Fogo Island Inn, brain-child of island-born dynamo Zita Cobb (Symposiasts will remember her inspirational presentation at Food and Power last year).

But for Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue and Executive Sous-chef Tim Charles, our Friday evening v-chef, the challenge was irresistible. Born and bred in the region, both men knew the territory and were well aware of the pitfalls and pleasures of setting delicious food on the table that reflects a landscape in which everything is hard-won.

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Tim Charles. Photo courtesy of Fogo Island Inn

Jonathan joined Tim – his trusted right hand – in 2018, the Inn’s sixth year, when the cooking at the Inn was already attracting admiration from critics more used to dining in Toronto, London and Manhattan. The result is that one of Canada’s best known culinary magicians was soon foraging, gathering and cooking in a state-of-the-art kitchen in one of the remotest places on earth.

Dining at Fogo Island Inn – for those who are fortunate and adventurous enough to make what’s already become a gastronomic pilgrimage – is an unspoken invitation to learn all there is to know about this remote and beautiful island. Chilled by the Labrador current way out in the North Atlantic, ice-girt, sun-washed, impossibly lovely at any time of year. Described by Zita (modesty is allowed the island-born) as a bald-topped island moored to another island moored to a faraway corner of the North America mainland.

And there’s the beauty of it.

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Fogo Island Inn

The island’s inhabitants, some two and half thousand descendants of a fishing community established some four centuries ago as safe-harbour and cod-salting-station using salt imported from the Caribbean in a three-cornered trade with London. Empty seas – result of overfishing by deep-sea trawlers in the 1950’s – left the islanders without their traditional livelihood. After years of strictly enforced quotas, the shoals are now returning.

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Salt cod drying. Photo credit: Paddy Barry

“What we’re trying to do,” says Zita. “Is respect the land and our traditional way of life by connecting people to nature and culture through food.”

Sounds simple?

Up to a point. First you have to know exactly what you’re doing in the kitchen: Tim and Jonathan see to that. Next comes choice of ingredients. Seasonal and local goes without saying – but as all islanders know, this is not just a matter of checking the storecupboard and ordering up what’s missing. Nature does what she does in her own good time, and all those who depend on her must pay attention. When the snow crabs are in season, a fisherman must put to sea and empty the creels. If the cloudberries are ripening from green to red to gold on a faraway headland, someone has gather them one by one from their delicate stalks. Nothing good can be done in a hurry.

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Jonathan forgaing. Photo credit: Steffen Jagenburg

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Photo courtesy of Fogo Island Inn

What follows is the menu that Tim suggested when we were planning to feast together in person at the long communal tables in St. Catz. Not this year – maybe next. Everything worth having is worth a wait.

So shut your eyes and imagine you’ve made the journey from the mainland and are ready for what’s about to happen in the glass-walled dining room of the Fogo Island Inn. You’re tired and happy after a day exploring the island, gathering herbs and berries from the heathery uplands and wandering along the tide-line with someone who knows what’s what.

Listen, as you take your seat at a table by the window, to the sound of the ocean far below, admire a flock of roseate terns, dainty as dancers, dipping the waves for fish, watch the sun slip towards the horizon in a blaze of scarlet and gold.

Ready?

Don’t open your eyes quite yet.

Pick up your virtual gathering-basket and fill your imagination with salty-juiced sea-rocket, Cakile edentula; a pod or two of beach-pea, Lathyrus maritimus (don’t eat too many); search the rockpools by the shore for bright green bunches of sea lettuce, Ulva lactuca – delicate and delicious.

Now make your way into the uplands for the glory of the island’s berries, none bigger than a thumbnail, that grow close to the ground and ripen from bud to blossom to berry in double-quick time, nature’s reward for the long months of winter. Common names explain their usefulness, or where they grow, or record the birds that feast on them – cloudberry (aka bakeapple), partridgeberry (aka lingonberry), blueberry, cranberry, crowberry (aka blackberry – a cause of some confusion among non-islanders), grouse-berry, marshberry, ground-hurts, creeping snowberry….

Home is where the heart is. Time to enjoy the v-feast.

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Jonathan Gushue Photo credit: Mireille Caza