Post-Symposium News

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Photo credit: Anna Warnow

A message from Symposium chair Elisabeth Luard

Thanks to all Symposiasts and everyone involved in the success of 2019’s Oxford Symposium on Food & Power. Whether as paper-presenters, invited speakers, invited chefs, first-timers, old-timers everyone who made the 2019 Symposium such a vintage year.

Which is not to imply that all 38 years of our existence weren’t vintage, as evidenced by the popularity of previous papers, all downloadable free courtesy of our funding-vehicle, Friends of the Oxford Symposium. Draft papers on Food & Power are currently undergoing the usual editing-process, and will be downloadable in 3 years’ time but available in volume-form from Prospect Books at the 2020 Symposium and thereafter.

Meanwhile please consider the proposing a paper on Herbs and Spices, our subject for 2020. You’ll find suggestions of what might be addressed here. Registration for the 2020 Symposium opens in mid-December. Please bear with us if there are any glitches in communication as the website is shortly to be upgraded with a glorious new design by Jake Tilson – who else?

Spotlight on a Meal: A difficult undertaking

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Aglaia Kremezi introduces the Saturday night dinner at the 2019 Symposium: The Power of Frugal Greek Cooking

Greek frugal cooking can show its real power in an intimate, family environment. Only when chef Michael Costa, my talented, tireless friend, accepted to leave his very busy kitchen in Washington DC and come to cook at St Catherine’s college, did I decide to undertake this difficult exercise of presenting in volume dishes meant for a small circle of friends and family.

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Passed from mother to daughter, such deliciously simple traditional dishes are devised by home-cooks who had to feed their families combining a few garden vegetables, greens and herbs, some cheese, and scraps of meat, fish or snails. This ingredient-based, seasonal and humble cuisine has no special broths or sauces, basically depending on olive oil, onions, and lemons; it can be challenging for some, but not for chef Costa.

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Michael is the only person I know who can calm my constant anxiety whenever we do special events at Zaytinya. Can you imagine feeling calm and serene during the peak hours in a restaurant kitchen that serves hundreds at every meal, has an extra-long menu, and prepares everything from scratch? Sounds a bit like an oxymoron, yet this is exactly how the Zaytinya kitchen operates under the guidance of concept chef Michael Costa. During its early days, I have occasionally seen the Zaytinya kitchen agitated, to put it mildly. Since Michael took over, there is this determined calmness that comes when everybody knows exactly what and how things should be done, and people —most cooks work there for years— respect and help one another.

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Ferran Adria, José Andrés and Michael Costa in Zaytinya.

While planning this Eastern Mediterranean restaurant, its brilliant creator Jose Andrés came to see me on Kea, sent by a mutual friend he trusted to point to him ‘a knowledgeable Greek cook.’ Almost sixteen years have passed, and a few chefs have struggled to achieve what Jose had in mind, while maintaining his very high standards in such a terribly busy restaurant where cooks make bread dough twice a day to bake to order the iconic pita, hand-roll the phyllo pastry, stuff vine leaves, and make meat-filled Turkish manti the size of chickpeas (!)

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Michael is an ingenious adopter and adapter. When we prepare a special dinner with my dishes and are in need of a Greek smoked cheese that is not available in the US, he does not let me use the local smoked cheddar but smokes himself Greek graviera in the kitchen. He recently smoked trout in the smoker he keeps in his crammed office deciding that store-bought smoked trout was unacceptable for my simple appetizer (for this dinner –since we are all still part of the EU– we were able to bring the Greek smoked mackerel you will taste).

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He also wants to make loza —the smoked, air-dried, spice-rubbed pork from Kea— in Zaytinya. He is inspired by my descriptions but has yet to taste it as I couldn’t bring it into the US. He will taste it here for the first time, as will all symposiasts. Throughout the winter I managed to order various pieces of loza so that I could bring to Oxford our local delicacy. It is yet one more example of island frugality, the most precious piece of the slaughtered pork, cured and saved for special occasions; it is not even available in Athens…

Spotlight on a Meal: The Power of Food in the Columbian Exchange

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Chef Lisette Galicia and Juan-José Cue the owner of the restaurant El Mural de los Poblanos

Sandra Mian describes, how during a fine dinner in Puebla, the idea of sponsoring a meal at the OFSC – Food and Power 2019 was born

May 15th 2018: it was a beautiful spring evening in Puebla de los Ángeles, the gastronomical capital of Mexico. I had been invited for dinner at one of the finest restaurants in the city, El Mural de los Poblanos. It was supposed to be a business dinner so I was prepared to present myself as a Canadian business woman. I could not, even then, have imagined that a business meal would be the starting point of an incredible adventure.

The place itself is amazing: housed in a 17th century building, with walls covered with murals – hence El Mural – depicting famous sons and daughters of Puebla. A local family has transformed what had been a Spanish-style restaurant into one of the jewels of Mexican gastronomy. Everything is local, from the handmade dishes and glasses to the ingredients, seasonal and sourced from local producers.

One of the owners, Juan-José Cue, was talking about the chef, Lisette Galicia, and how she was a proud defender of the value of traditional family recipes in a professional kitchen. That was my first big surprise of that night: that the head chef of as acclaimed restaurant was a woman! Immediately I asked him if I could talk with Lisette – Lis to those who know her well – a young woman who impressed me immediately with her knowledge and commitment. And when Lisette asked us what we would like to eat, I asked her to bring whatever she thought best.

My only request was that I wanted to drink pulque, my all-time favourite. Now it was the owners’ time to be surprised as pulque is not what foreigners usually drink. In truth, most Mexicans have never tasted it either! Pulque, the fermented sap of maguey pulquero, a member of the agave family, is a whitish and mildly alcoholic drink, the most important beverage in Mexico during prehispanic times. However, in common with amaranth, pulque suffered from the conquerors’ prejudice against prehispanic foodstuffs, and by the 1940’s, pulque had been replaced as the national refreshment of choice by beer.

Questioned as to the reason for my taste for pulque as a foreigner, I answered, as I often do in Mexico: “Nosotros, los Mexicanos, nacemos donde queremos” – We Mexicans are born wherever we choose. From that moment on I realized I was not regarded as a Brazilian or Canadian any more. Now I was truly a Mexican.

The food arrived and we started eating and drinking as Mexicans like to do: savouring each bite, talking and having fun at the table, discussing the food, its origins, the ingredients, their history. And I started to think about how much my friends of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery would love to experience a meal such as this. So I spoke my thoughts aloud as they came into my head:

“What an amazing thing it would be for my fellow Symposiasts to taste mezcal and chapulines and mole and all this wonderful food, so deeply linked to the landscape and the history of Puebla.”

And the answer was: “Well, we would love to have all them here but we know it is not possible. But what if we could bring our food to Oxford?” When Mexicans introduce themselves to strangers and mention their land of origin, they also add the traditional offer of hospitality: “mi casa es su casa” – my home is your home. And they mean it! As a Mexican myself (well …adopted but Mexican anyway!), I knew my friends were serious about the offer.

After several mugs of pulque and glasses of beer and mezcal, we were all brainstorming how the gastronomy of Puebla could fit into the Symposium’s theme for 2019, ‘Food and Power’. Everyone at the table started to offer suggestions. “Puebla was very powerful during colonial times because of the commerce,” one said. Another added, “Yes, but it was because the location of Puebla midway between the ports of Acapulco and Veracruz”. As we were eating some wonderful sweetmeats while drinking a local digestif, we also remembered that power of the Catholic Church and the nuns that have created all those wonderful morsels.

My head was spinning! What if we could present a proposal to the Symposium’s Trustees suggesting Puebla as sponsor for a meal? As good Mexicans, we all said the only thing that could go wrong was that the Trustees would say ‘no’. But why not try? At first I played the devil’s advocate, setting out all the difficulties: Puebla is on the other side of the Atlantic, we may need to source hard-to-find ingredients, the logistics are not easy, and so on. But my Mexican friends always answered me with a smile: “We did much more difficult things in the past, we can do this now”.

Never doubt the tenacity of the Mexicans. In the following days and weeks, we discussed how we could have a meal that rested on three pillars: the power of landscape, the power of commerce, and – last but by no means least – the power of women. Being helped by a wonderful and very generous local historian, Fabián Valdivia, I started putting our ideas on paper.

The power of the landscape

Puebla is located on in a fertile region and the climate is very benign. Indeed, the land seemed so fertile and climate so good that the Spaniards decided to build a city so perfect that the angels themselves might have drawn up the plans. The result was Puebla de los Ángeles. The climate is much like that of Spain’s most temperate regions, neither too cold nor too hot. There was water available and the region was already famous for the vast quantity of maguey, the magical all-purpose plant so useful the first chroniclers named it the tree of wonders. At that time, pulque was the traditional alcoholic beverage, maize was the staple grainfood eaten with beans, chilies, cactus-paddles, pumpkins, avocadoes and insects such as chapulines, grasshoppers.

Before the Conquistadores arrived, the region was populated by a fiercely independent people who had never completely accepted Aztec rule. With the aid of a Nahua woman, Malintze, known as La Malinche, Hernán Cortéz joined forces with the locals and was able to defeat the Aztecs. The memory of La Malinche is preserved, appropriately for one so fiery, in the name of one of the volcanoes that rise beyond the city.

The second pillar: commerce between East and West

From 1565 to 1815, the Spanish kings established a trade route between the east and the west. Twice a year from the port of Acapulco, the Galeón de Manila sailed across the Pacific to the Philippines, carrying gold and silver but also, and maybe even more important, foodstuffs. On the return journey to Acapulco – tornaviaje – the Galeón was loaded with luxury goods such as spices, especially cinnamon and cloves. These goods were transported overland via Puebla, a city strategically located midway between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Veracruz the goods were sent onwards to Spain. The return journey brought products from Europe, with Puebla serving the same function in reverse. As the commercial crossroads between East and West, Puebla became rich and powerful, developing a merchant class who could afford to use spices and exotic products in their kitchens. As a result, the dish for which Puebla is most famous, mole poblano, is the perfect example of the Columbian Exchange: a gastronomic triumph in which local and imported ingredients are perfectly harmonised through the application of both local and foreign techniques.

The third pillar: the power of women

In the time of the Spanish ascendancy, the city of Puebla was endowed with more Roman Catholic convents than any other city of New Spain. For a woman to be accepted as a nun, it was necessary to be of Spanish descent (or at least belong to one of the higher castas) and bring an acceptable dowry. Such women were educated, came with their own servants, and had ample time and money to order up the latest Spanish cookbooks and adapt the recipes to local ingredients and tastes. Many of the dishes that have now come to be associated with Mexican cuisine – mole poblano, manchamanteles, chiles en nogada – were invented in Puebla by skilled convent cooks working in the vast Talavera-tiled kitchens where they prepared the traditional convent sweetmeats sold on saints days as a source of income.

Later, during the Revolution of the early 20th century, las adelinas – women who fought alongside men – used their culinary skills to cook good food for their fellow fighters – particularly café de olla, a highly-spiced morning drink powerful enough to waken the weariest soldier and send him into battle well-fortified.

With these three ideas in mind and in spirit of los lienzos – drawings through which Aztecs and Mayas recorded their history – chef Lisette has devised a menu that tells the story of Puebla through the recipes devised in traditional households and convent kitchens.

So it came about our dream of presenting the story of Puebla as an edible history will soon become a reality: we are proud to announce that the Friday dinner at the Oxford Symposium this year will be an authentically poblano feast.

As we say to all those friends we do not yet know, and those who are already our friends: ‘Somos de Puebla y nuestra casa es su casa; nuestra comida es su comida. !Provechito!‘ – “We are from Puebla and our home is your home; our food is your food. Enjoy!”

Spotlight on a Meal: The Sustainable Food Story’s Lunch

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Mustard seeds for 250 people

Abi Aspen Glencross and Sadhbh Moore of The Sustianable Food Story introduce their lunch from the 2018 Symposium on Seeds.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background in food, and your current role?

The Sustainable Food Story burst into life one fateful afternoon when ebullient and chatty Abi Aspen Glencross came to meet the equally ebullient and possibly even chattier Sadhbh Moore at The Skip Garden, following an e-troduction by food campaigner Tristram Stuart.

Sadhbh grew up in a family of ecogastronomes on an organic homestead in rural Ireland where fishing, foraging, picking veg and herbs from the garden and baking bread were all part of the daily routine. She studied Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, gaining an academic perspective that reinforced the appreciation for how she was brought up. After working with Greenpeace, other environmental organisations and a stint living in rural India she gravitated back towards what made her heart sing; harvesting fresh produce and turning it into something to be shared with her community.
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2015 Symposium Proceedings Free on Google Books

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Food and Communication

We are pleased to announce that another volume of our proceedings is now available on Google Books for free: Food and Communication.

Learn about the etiquette of slurping in Japan, tattoos in the kitchen, the ideology of cookbooks from the Spanish Civil War and more here.

The Symposium proceedings are published by Prospect Books for three years after publication. After this point they are available for free on Google Books.
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Borlotti Beans

Symposium trustee Gamze Ineceli introduces a seed planting project started after last year’s Symposium on food and landscape

This is a story of seven regions and seven landscapes where centuries-old production and conservation methods endure from season to season and generation to generation, whose purpose is to preserve, sustain and continue.

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Top row left to right: Alaçatı / İzmir; Karaman; Kars; Antakya. Middle row left to right: Çanakkale; Çanakkale ; Bodrum / Muğla; Cappadocia / Nevşehir; Cappadocia / Nevşehir. Bottom row: Trabzon; Trabzon; Bozcaada / Çanakkale; Tekirdağ; Diyarbakır

Seven regions of Anatolia planted and nurtured dwarf borlotti beans that were graciously donated to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery by Franchi Seeds in collaboration with the Eden Project and David Matchett of the Borough Market.

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Map of Turkey showing the growing areas for the borlotti beans

The Jewels of Life : A Seed Atelier

We are delighted to introduce one of our evening activities at the 2018 Symposium: jewellery making from seeds and an exhibition led by Gönül Paksoy

Gönül Paksoy, who’ll be conducting after-dinner ateliers in seed-based jewellery at the Symposium, is an İstanbul-based artist, author and designer of clothes and jewellery whose work has been exhibited around the world:

I approach my work in the belief that small efforts will produce a major contribution towards our planet’s future. Learn from the song-thrush, a bird that, after eating its fill of the juniper berries it adores, is said to germinate the seeds in its stomach before placing them in the soil right next to a juniper tree, thus creating a juniper forest. Each of us, if we so choose, can create a great forest just like the song-thrush that places fruit seeds in the soil.

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Jewellery designed by Gönül Paksoy, photographs by Lalehan Uysal

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Jewellery designed by Gönül Paksoy, photographs by Lalehan Uysal. Seeds from L to R. Top row: pomelo, wild date. Middle row: asparagus, muscat, cardoon. Bottom row: pumpkin, anatolian watermelon.