The Stubborn Cuisine of Fogo Island

Symposium Chair, Elisabeth Luard, introduces our Friday evening v-chefs

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.


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.


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.


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.


Jonathan forgaing. Photo credit: Steffen Jagenburg


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.


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.


Jonathan Gushue Photo credit: Mireille Caza

Meet V-Symposium Guest Chef Asma Khan

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard talks about life, liberty and food with this year’s guest chef Asma Khan


Asma Khan is a powerhouse for change in the restaurant world. Radical by conviction, royal by descent, Asma’s Darjeeling Express – the title of her book as well as her woman-powered eatery modestly perched on a second-floor balcony overlooking a glittering multi-cultural food-court just off London’s Carnaby Street.

Asma does what she does because she’s educated, entrepreneurial and, most important of all, a woman. That London is the city she lives and works is a tribute to a city she finds extraordinary – tolerant, welcoming, equal and free. No small compliment from a woman whose life’s work is empowering women, particularly those displaced by the wars raging throughout the Middle East.

I first met Asma in person, although I’d long known her by repute, a couple of years ago, when she was hosting a Chanukka supper-club to which I had been invited as a journalist and guest. And found myself – a stroke of luck – opposite the chef-proprietor, unmistakably elegant in her beautiful sari. My notes on the evening say little about the meal – very delicious, it goes without saying – but much about Asma herself. Which is as it should be, considering how influential she is in the world of food.


I was the first girl in my family to go to university. It was thought I wasn’t pretty enough to find a husband. But after university they arranged for me to meet a young man, a lecturer in London, nine years older than me, with a view to marriage. He didn’t know we were being set up and when I told him, he ran away. Immediately. I had to pay the bill. But the next day he came to find me in the office where I worked, and the supervisor came to tell me I had a visitor. I was wearing my work-clothes, terrible shoes. So I went to the balcony and looked over and there he was.

So when we met and could talk properly, it seemed to me that he respected women and would let me do what I wanted without interference. And that’s been so. We have two teenage sons one of whom eats everything and the other won’t eat anything he doesn’t like. My husband’s an academic, so he works through most of the night on his books. Of course he thinks what I do is crazy but he’s proud of me and it works.

Refugee women who come into our kitchen and cook feel empowered – I can see the looks on their faces, the pleasure they take in the memories the women have created together, the happiness on the faces of the people who recognise their mother’s cooking.

I’ve just filmed Chef’s Table for Netflix, and when they wanted the beauty-shots, to show the food all tarted up with foam and flowers, I told them we don’t do that. And so what happened was that all the women who’d cooked with me stood up in a line against a blue wall with their names written beside them. It was wonderful, magnificent. We all felt so proud.

Food is all about power, so of course it’s political. In India, women do all the cooking in the home, clean, care for the children and do all the work that keeps the family together. And yet they’re nameless, thousands of generations of women whose work is unknown, never acknowledged.

Politics in India is divided in just the same way as the social divisions that keep women and men in their place – and as a Muslim in India today, I’d be worried. These days it’s not the maharajahs – Muslim descendants of Muglai dynasties – that hold the power, but the Hindu middle-class, the bureaucrats and businessmen who run the country, supported politically by the rural poor who believe a demagogue will give them what they want. They won’t get it, of course, but that’s not what matters.

The clan is what matters in India – first the family, then the village, then the nation. Women are supposed to be invisible, chattels, brought up to serve the father, then the husband, then the sons.

This is what everywhere needs to change. And I’ve no doubt it will.


Battle has already been joined. In an article by Jonathan Nunn in the Guardian in March this year on the reopening of the restaurant trade after the corona-virus lockdown, Asma is quoted as of the opinion that the biggest issue is the need for unionisation. “After this,” she says, “our priority should be to create a powerful union that is the voice of the workers, not the owners and investors.”

Fighting talk. And as you’d expect, Asma’s food is just as delicious and no-nonsense as the woman herself. For recipes and Asma in person, you’ll have to wait for the v-Symposium.

Photo credit Ming Tang-Evans

Cooking for the Symposium

Tim Kelsey, Head Chef at St Catz, talks about the experience of cooking for 250 Symposiasts for the last fourteen years

Tim Kelsey with Fergus Henderson

This year, with the Symposium going virtual, lock-down seems like the right time to look back over the years. It was in 2006, when the Oxford Food Symposium’s Trustees decided to bring the conference here to St Catz, that I first attended a meeting with the organisers. They were interested, they told me, in the food that would be served during the weekend, and would like to link it to the year’s theme. The aim being that the lunches and dinners served at communal tables in our college dining hall should be not only reflect but increase understanding of the chosen topic. The first year's subject was Eggs. This sounded like something different, so I thought “why not? It could be fun!!”

That year, 2006, there were 180 guests and the catering was in-house. Fourteen years later the numbers have increased to 280 and we have guest chefs coming into the St. Catz kitchen to cook featured meals, or we work with food writers to create their suggested menus. There are four meals to be prepared over the weekend: Friday dinner, Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch. I estimate that so far we have prepared more than fifty different menus. Chefs and cookery writers we have worked with include Raymond Blanc, Fergus Henderson, Shaun Hill, Stevie Parle, Henry Harris, Claudia Roden, Elisabeth Luard, Olia Hercules and Fuchsia Dunlop.


Tim Kelsey with Moshe Bason

Another feature of our annual kitchen-action is the result of the Symposium’s Young Chef Award, competitively selected among many applicants. The Award includes residential weekend at the Symposium and the chance to work on Friday’s gala dinner with one of our invited chefs. When Naomi, my daughter, won one of the Awards in 2016, she took the opportunity to attend the lectures and meet people. The result was that long-time Symposiast Cherry Ripe, discovering that Naomi wanted to cook in Australia, offered to host her so she could experience restaurant work in Sydney. Naomi enjoyed Australia so much she stayed and is now living in Melbourne!

Over the years, I have met inspirational people who taught the team at St Catz new ways of looking at cooking. Sometimes we, the Catz team, were able to use our experience to advise our guest chefs on the best way to achieve their vision of their dishes, particularly scaling-up and serving to deadline. Sometimes it’s the other way round. As in 2009, when Raymond Blanc’s Head Chef Gary Jones arrived at 5.00pm on Saturday with his team, after doing a wedding. A whirlwind entered the kitchen, all very professional and focused on preparing dinner. I remember Gary’s reply to my comments was “…next time”, a gentle way of saying ‘no thanks – we’ll do it our way!’ Gary offered work-experience at the Manoir: I have yet to take it up, but hopefully the offer’s still open!


From left to right: Gary Jones, Raymond Blanc, Tim Kelsey and Benoit Blin

There have been entertaining times: hours preparing baby artichokes for presentation in leaf, then seeing them diced finely for a risotto. Scary times too – not many, but once when our heavy-duty bratt pan was set alight, we had to deal with a full-fledged fire! Fun times – well – for me, highlights include the opportunity to visit restaurants such as Masala Zone, St. Johns, Bar Shu, a chance to join Sri Owen in her kitchen and visit Dublin for a meal at Boxty House with Symposiast Máirtín Mac Coniomaire and Pádriac Og – in 2017, I think they took the record for greatest amount of Irish coffee served in any one night!

Most memorable dishes? Some of these we continue to use in the kitchen. Suitable for this year’s theme would be Sri Owen’s Indonesian Peanut Sauce, Stevie Parle’s lamb with seven spices and pomegranite molasses, Olia Hercules’; lamb cooked with tarragon, dill and coriander. Most surprising? Well – chef Batti from Masala Zone strained a great deal of yoghourt through muslin overnight, sweetened and infused it with saffron and – oh yes!- finished it off with gold leaf.


After Sunday lunch when it’s all over for another year and everyone has said good-bye, the fridges are emptied and the floor mopped and surfaces wiped down, by about 4.00 pm we are tidy again. A feeling of calm comes over the kitchen before we turn back to real life -preparing dinner for another two hundred people.


From left to right Ursula Heinzelmann, Gamze Ineceli, Moshe Bason, Claudia Roden and Tim Kelsey

All about the V-Symposium’s Visit to Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

Symposium Trustee Gamze İneceli takes us on a journey of the senses to Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

Imagine, if you will, the waters of the Bosphorus at your back. Inhale the fresh breeze from the sea and follow the fragrances wafting from a nearby flower market. Now close your eyes. In a minute you’re enveloped in the aroma of freshly roasted Turkish coffee. Open your eyes and find yourself standing at the gates of the Spice Bazaar. Get ready to immerse yourself in fragrances both familiar and unfamiliar, awakening memories through your senses. Some of the scents and tastes you already know, others you have yet to experience. You are here! You are there! We are here together, somewhere between past and future.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce myself to those who don’t yet know me. I’m an Istanbul-based food-culture researcher, a Trustee of the Oxford Symposium and a member of the organizational committee working to deliver the atmosphere as well as the practicality of this year’s virtual Symposium. The subject, happily for me, is Herbs and Spices.

As a specialist in the culinary traditions of Anatolia, the western region of Turkey that includes Istanbul, the opportunity to offer a virtual tour of my beloved city’s Spice Bazaar seemed the perfect way of integrating into our v-programme the human energy as well as the scents, colours and sounds of this magical place. And as a member of the project team of the Turkish Food Guide, ‘İncili Gastronomi Rehberi’, I have already had the opportunity to include my favourite spice-shops.

The building itself – Mısır Çarşısı as it’s known to my fellow citizens who thronged the aisles before the lock-down – was completed in 1664 under the direction of a woman, Queen Mother Haseki Sultan, Regent of the Ottoman Empire during the minority of her young son. I think you will agree its colonnades and over-arching roof-spaces are a magnificent tribute to what has always been a trading-post between East and West since the beginning of recorded time.


Our virtual tour of the Bazaar will be delivered virtually by anthropologist and cookbook author Dr. Ümit Hamlacıbaşı, drawing on her experience of conducting sensory tours of the Bazaar in less constricted times and her extensive knowledge of the uses of spices and herbs in Turkish kitchens.

We will explore the secret corners of one of the Bazaar’s most popular spice-emporiums, Hayfene, whose trading history can be traced to the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the southern shores of the Mediterranean as far as Egypt. The current owner, 33-year-old Ahmet Kadioglu, explains the origin of the shop’s name: “If our business is a gift from our grandfathers, the name is a gift from our grandmothers. Hayfene is a kid’s game from Malatya region of eastern Anatolia when children collect certain foodstuffs from their neighbours to provide them with a delicious picnic. At Hayfene, the aim is to gather people around good food, just as happens in the game, so as to recreate the spirit of unity and joy our name represents.”

 alt= All this will be made possible with the collaboration of Istanbul-based production company NNACO, who have taken the decision to work on films, video-art, commercials and other undertakings with people and projects that take a positive view of life. Just what’s needed, under the circumstances.

Meanwhile my main interest – I’ll come clean! – is in connecting today’s young chefs working in professional kitchens to the realities of food-production – soil, seed, harvest – through an understanding of agricultural traditions and their anthropological background. As a restaurateur in an earlier career, I consult and curate international food projects and symposiums around the globe.

Which accounts for the strength of my enthusiasm for this year’s theme, Herbs and Spices, as the perfect opportunity to show Istanbul’s beloved Spice Bazaar as a feast for all the senses. At this time – more than ever – we need to awaken the memories we share. And by so doing, remind ourselves that this time of physical deprivation – hard to think of it in any other way – will not last for ever.


2020: Our very first V-Symp

Update from our Chair, Elisabeth Luard

It’s been a busy time since our Trustees took the decision a month and a half ago that we needed to go virtual. Organising what will actually happen is a co-operative effort as this is new territory for even the most experienced techie as well as Trustees and volunteer-labour (you know who you are!) who provide the backbone of the Symposium, as everyone who’s attended the physical weekend at St. Catz knows well enough.

Editor Mark McWilliam’s paper-presenters are reportedly already hard at work on the written papers ready for posting ahead of the V-Symposium, as usual, and will be delivering their presentations virtually (no one will be reading their actual paper – perish the thought!) with opportunities for Q&A. With a couple of months still in hand till the V-Symposium goes live on Friday 10th July, Director Ursula Heinzelmann and Programmer Cathy Kaufman together with Virtual Communication Wizard David Matchett are working on the nuts and bolts of what we can and can’t do. 

However, with boundless optimism, ambition, enthusiasm and the help of our web-master – not to mention anticipated patience and goodwill of our V-Symposiasts – we aim to deliver as much of the atmosphere of the residential weekend at St. Catz as is virtually possible. Plenary Speakers Vivienne Lo, Charles Spence and Harold McGee need no introduction (you’ll find more under This Year). Trustee Gamze Ineceli is gathering virtual presentations, recipes – maybe even demo’s – from our guest chefs, Asma Khan of London’s Darjeeling Express, Fogo Island Inn‘s Jonathan Gushue, Jill Norman hand-in-glove with writer and chef David Tanis, as well as Borough Market producers.

In addition – providing some of the casual encounters that are such a feature of the Symposium – there’ll be no shortage of chat-rooms, virtual Wiki-edit, Climate Change discussion-forum, presentation of new work on the encyclopaedic Sifter and a whole lot more including a virtual Noticeboard where registered V-Symposiasts will have a chance to post videos and make their voices heard. We’ll be posting regular updates here as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Remembering Richard Hosking


Photo credit: Ove Fossa

From our former Chair, Carolin C. Young, with Patsy Iddison and Helen Saberi

It is with great sadness that we inform the community of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery that one of our treasured symposiasts, Richard Hosking, b. 31 March 1933, passed away in London on 19 October 2019. Richard was one of the symposium’s founding Trustees, who devoted countless hours and energy to assist its transition into a Charitable Trust. Because he lived around the corner from co-founder Alan Davidson and his wife Jane Davidson after retiring to London in 1998, looking in regularly on them in their later years, he provided an important glue that allowed the organisation to remain true to its roots even as it grew in new directions.

Richard may be most remembered by long-time Symposiasts as editor of the Proceedings from 2003—2006, and 2009. Every year he worried that he wouldn’t receive enough submissions; every year, he was overwhelmed when proposals poured in just at the deadline. He nevertheless worked carefully with each and every author to help polish their essays for publication.

As a well-recognised scholar of Japanese food, Richard’s own work-in-print includes A Dictionary of Japanese Food; ingredients and culture (1996) and At the Japanese Table (2000). Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) honoured him with the Minister’s Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food, singling out the dictionary for special praise – a work that also appears in a Spanish translation – as the first and only such guide to Japanese cuisine published in a foreign language. This book also received a special award from the Premio Langhe Ceretto in 1997, the Andre Simon Memorial Prize in 1998, and was shortlisted for the Glenfiddich Award in 1997.

Born in Australia, Richard was educated at the University of Cambridge, where he studied Hebrew and Sanskrit. He worked for the British Museum, and then for twenty years taught English and sociology at Hiroshima Shudo University. After his return to London, he frequently hosted former students – sometimes also their family and friends – and offered hospitality to many attendees of the Oxford Symposium coming from abroad along with the use of his flat for meetings. In his later years, he became an expert amateur chocolatier, generously distributing his delectable creations to a wide circle of friends.

He will be missed by all who knew him or read his work.

Lifetime Achievement Award for Symposium President Claudia Roden

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard on Claudia Roden’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Many congratulations to our President, Claudia Roden, on receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award at Observer Food Monthly’s annual award ceremony at the Mansion House (17.10. 2019) – and quite right too! Here’s what she said: “I am thrilled and hugely grateful to receive such a prestigious award from people I admire who have changed the way we enjoy and care about food and the way we eat. I started collecting recipes when I was twenty and became hooked on food and that is what I still do. It is wonderful now to be honoured in this way and to feel part of a vibrant community”.

In The Observer Food Monthly, our previous Chair, Bee Wilson, assesses the importance of our President’s work:

For more than five decades she [Claudia Roden] has devoted herself to the task of piecing together complex food cultures and proving that they not only exist, they must also be shared….I asked her which of her books she was most proud of. She says it’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food. ‘I was the first and it mattered.’ Right from the beginning she felt a recipe was a way of recording authentic memories. This was why she went about the process in such a slow and laborious manner. All over the Mediterranean, she would arrive in a city and ‘accost people’ asking them for their favourite recipes….She spoke to strangers on trains and interviewed the elderly in old people’s homes. Each recipe she acquired felt like a treasure because it belonged to a particular culture, often one from which people had been wrenched away. ‘I had to tell these stories.’ …Few others have ever taken so seriously the idea of a recipe as heritage and her influence extends far beyond the cookbook shelf.

Symposium trustee Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire has interviewed Claudia Roden as part of the Symposium’s oral history project. Listen here.

Post-Symposium News


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.

Spotlight on a Meal: A difficult undertaking

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.


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.


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.


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 (!)


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).


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


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!”