OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 1)

When Marion Nestle and Scott Barton pulled up a chair at the OFS Kitchen Table to discuss Food, Power and the Powerless with some hundred fellow-guests, it was clear that the conversation would be tough and to the point.
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L to R: Marion Nestle and Scott Barton

Asking tough questions and looking for the right answers is what we hope to do at OFS Kitchen Table – an informal, friendly, no-holds-barred monthly gathering where we debate a single subject with invited guests whose views we need to hear. Established by special request from this year’s v-Symposiasts, attendance is open to all – just book in and turn up.

What follows is a digest of the talking-points from the chatline – for the full experience, check yourself in at https://vsymp.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/event/

From US: For Marion and Scott: what’s your opinion on providing a first class each day in every primary school, based on edible pedagogy with active participation? All subjects can incorporate food into their respective curriculums to ensure that each child gets a meal at the start of each school day.

From UK: A good part of my work is working with children as well as adults, and the one of key influences is getting kids involved in fruit and veg early on. It’s the pleasure to explore which impacts highly on later life-choices thru the idea of getting all children involved in school do like in Japan and Indian, where children respect food and develop a healthy attitude towards food and valuing its impact on health and the environment.

From Demark: In Copenhagen, some Farmers organise themselves by offering bags with fresh greens/produce to the public on a weekly basis – some restaurants turn their restaurants into groceries – my fishmonger who normally only sell to restaurants have started a new idea after closing of top restaurants: a box of mixed fresh fish to the people – lots of initiative since the pandemic.

From Ireland: In Ireland, we now have a number of schools with edible gardens. Local communities, parents, garden centres, chefs and producers are helping teachers and children to manage them. Children and parents are now asking schools to put one in. Change is happening on the ground, but there’s a lack of support at government level!

From UK
: Immigration, if it’s done anything in UK, is to improve things – both in terms of restaurants and shops. East Europeans generally would eat better snacks than UK indigenous and so it goes. Brazilians in UK that I have worked with ate better than the locals.

From US: Shelves of packaged/prepared/processed foods and the meat counters in Ohio were empty when the pandemic started. Fresh fruits and vegetables bins were overflowing because no one was shopping for “perishables.”

From Greece: Subscribe to farms. Check the farm in your area and subscribe to get regular boxes of seasonal produce. Subscriptions have quadrupled with the pandemic.

From Brazil: In Brazil we have something called a Basic Bag that people under a certain salary level or on a food stamps program that does not have canned food at all – black beans – rice – flour etc

From UK: In the UK there has been some concern that food parcels for those shielding and more recently for students needing to self-isolate has been poor quality, highly processed and not taking account of special diets whether because of allergies or religious restrictions. Very concerning.

From US: In the US plant-based meals have not been the norm so people look to substitutes — isn’t it part of being culturally relative? So many rich cuisines can be vegetarian / vegan but they are not “familiar” here. Like the example Marion gave about being grateful for having a vegan “burger” instead of saying they love a good aloo masala.

From UK: Re the US being ‘ahead’, I actually meant in terms of the negative trends in food, not the positive ones…although of course the US was a pioneer in many of the initiatives we now think of as part of the Food Movement – so they were the first off the tracks in reaction to the inequalities of industrial food, for good reason….

From US: A cheaper way to educate children about food is by reuniting children with nature and showing them how to gather and eat free food. I understand this is harder in built up areas but urban foragers are finding more and more in the concrete jungle.

From UK: The primary action is re-ordering our insane economic system. The normalisation of the tiny number of global rich getting richer while the rest of us get poorer….. A significant way that happens is because we have tax havens where $25+ billion is parked and used without any taxation paid in the countries where that money was earned. Amazon, Apple, etc, etc. Before the Reagan / Thatcher economic revolution, businesses paid tax —for schools, health, ….in short the social safety net.

The next Kitchen Table is on 16th December 17:00 – 18:30 (UK time) Shared Visions: Expressions of hope through food on the table.

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Painting by Elisabeth Luard

Announcing the first OSF Kitchen Table: Tickets available

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Painting by Elisabeth Luard

Book now to pull up a chair at the very first OSF Kitchen Table on Tuesday October 20th for our first informal, interactive gathering by special request from this year’s v-Symposiasts. Join Marion Nestle and Scott Barton as they dig deep into global food politics and corporate opportunism. Attendance is open to all and the spirit, as always at Symposium events, will be as co-operative, lively and inclusive as possible.

So if you missed out on July’s block-busting roller-coaster of a v-Symp, now’s your chance! Better still, make it a regular date as we’ll be scheduling more-or-less monthly meetings from now on till next July (we’re still working on the programme). As with our Zoom meetings at the v-Symp, everyone present will have a chance to make their voices heard. We’ll start at 1900 Oxford-time, and tickets are available here.

Alan Davidson and the Symposium’s Turkish connection

Charles Perry pays tribute to the diplomat and food historian Alan Davidson, an incurable romantic who changed the course of food history

Elisabeth Luard writes: In celebration of our Turkish connection (more than forty-strong at this year’s V-Symp), first-timers and anyone curious to know a little more about our beginnings might like to meet long-time Symposiast and sometime Trustee, Charles Perry, friend for many years of the Symposium’s founding-father, the late Alan Davidson. Their enduring friendship probably had as much to do with a shared view of the world – both men did not always follow the rules – as the study of food-history. As an internationally respected authority on medieval Arabic cookery manuscripts, in 2005, Charles translated the Kitâbu’t-Tabih of Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi under the title A Baghdad Cookery Book for Prospect Books, the Symposium’s publishing arm. This, however, is not the whole story. Charles’s early life included personal experience of the psychedelic 1960s in San Francisco, eight years as staff-writer on Rolling Stone followed by the publication of a history of Haight-Ashbury. In 1981, Charles attended the first full Oxford Symposium at St. Antony’s, contributing thereafter most years to the published Proceedings. In later years – 1990-2008 – he served as a staff writer for the food section of the Los Angeles Times, and in 1995 he co-founded the Culinary Historians of Southern California.
Our founding-father’s enthusiasm for all things Turkish is recorded in his friend’s affectionate obituary published in the Istanbul-based scholarly journal, Cornucopia, issue 30, 2003/2004.

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Alan Davidson. Courtesy of Charles Perry

Alan Davidson was many things: diplomat, novelist, publisher, encyclopedist, patron of the new phenomenon of scholarly food writing…. In all his activities he easily found time to be an influential friend of Turkish cuisine.

There were always at least two sides to Alan. One was the serious, scholarly boy from Leeds who took a double first in Classical Greats at Oxford and went on to be British ambassador to several countries. The other is suggested by a recurring character in the comic stories he wrote at Oxford (one of which was published in Punch in 1948): an eager, incurable romantic, beating his wings against the limitations of the everyday.

In 1962, his American-born wife asked whether he would help her sort out the varieties of fish for sale in the markets of Tunis, mostly unfamiliar, often sold under mysterious Arabic or Greek names. He looked into the matter and realised it would require considerable research, scientific and historical as well as linguistic and culinary: in short, the writing of a novel kind of book about fish.

This challenge seemed to unite his serious and adventurous sides. The resulting pamphlet – later expanded at the urging of the cookery writer Elizabeth David into Mediterranean Seafood (Penguin, 1972) – ultimately led him to turn away from his diplomatic career. In 1975, after the fall of Laos, his last ambassadorial posting, he took early retirement to become a writer, at first specialising in fish.

When I met him in 1980, he had recently taken three epochal steps that would change the course of food history. He had started a small publishing operation, Prospect Books, to reprint historical cookbooks; now headed by his friend Tom Jaine, it has used the slogans “Every volume a brick in the wall of knowledge” and “Each title more arcane than the last”. He had published curious pieces of food writing that could find no home in the commercial press, calling it Petits Propos Culinaires (usually abbreviated to PPC)… And as a fellow of St Antony’s College, he had convened a symposium about cookery and cookery books, which has evolved into an annual event at which unusual food scholarship from all over the world is welcome.

It is through these various activities that he made contact with Turkey. In 1984, the food writer Claudia Roden, a frequent Oxford Symposiast [and now its President], wrote a report for PPC on one of the annual symposiums on Turkish food that Feyzi Halıcı organised in Konya during the 1980s. In 1986, the Davidsons attended Halıcı’s First International Food Congress (Birinci Milletlarası Yemek Kongresi), at which they presented a joint paper on ‘English Perceptions of Turkish Cookery in the 18th and 19th Centuries’.

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Claudia Roden at the Konya International Food Congress. Courtesy of Nevin Halıcı

For Jane Davidson, it was something of a homecoming. The daughter of an American ambassador to Turkey, she had fond memories of glamorous diplomatic balls and romantic outings on the Bosphorus during the 1940s. For Alan, it was a revelation – not only about the quality of Turkish food but the keen intellectual interest the Turks were taking in their culinary heritage. On his return to England, he wrote a glowing report of the congress for PPC, noting the eager coverage the congress received from the Turkish press. (I saw this for myself in 1992, when Turkish television clamoured to interview me about my discovery that some medieval Arab cookbooks included a dish with a Turkish name – karnıyarık – but that it was a pastry, not the stuffed eggplant dish that goes by that name today.)

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Clockwise from top left: Charles Perry, Sri Owen, Jane and Alan Davidson and Jill Norman

He also noted the encyclopedic researches on Turkish regional cuisine that were being published by Feyzi Halıcı’s sister, Nevin. The Davidsons, Claudia Roden and their circle were instrumental in bringing her work to the attention of Europe and America, resulting in the publication of her English-language book Nevin Halıcı’s Turkish Cuisine (Dorling Kindersley, 1989). PPC has published a number of articles by Nevin Hanım, and she has attended several Oxford Symposiums.

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Nevin Halıcı and Feyzi Halıcı at the Konya International Food Congress.Courtesy of Nevin Halıcı

In 1999, Davidson’s chef d’oeuvre, the project he had been working on since 1976, came to fruition with the publication of The Oxford Companion to Food (OUP), a 1,036-page encyclopedia reflecting his scholarly interests, and also his subtle wit and love of the curious and unexpected. By this time, he had begun to have health problems and consciously started taking steps to ensure that Prospect Books, PPC and the Oxford Symposiums would flourish when he was no longer around. On December 2, he lost consciousness at his home in Chelsea and was rushed to hospital, where he died without awakening. He leaves his wife, Jane, and three daughters.

One consolation his family and his literally countless friends have is that his labours, and his unique role as the centre of a worldwide network of food scholars, had been gloriously recognised the preceding month, when the government of the Netherlands awarded him the prestigious Erasmus Prize.

The prize committee praised him for almost single-handedly elevating the study of food to scholarly respectability. His friends would agree, but to them it seems only part of the purely beneficent influence of his life.

This article appears here by kind permission of author and publisher.

The First Voyage of Starship V-Symp

Naomi Duguid: Final Report from a Crewmember
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Young chefs in conversation with Harold McGee and Tim Kelsey.

Each year the Symposium is like a vigorous green garden of aromatic and sometimes spicy conversations and ideas. And this year, magically, even more so, as we travelled on the good starship VSYMP for nearly four weeks. Now that we’ve docked, to give us time to plot our next travels, it’s time to reflect on where we’ve been. What a voyage!

When the Trustees realised that we’d need to either go virtual or completely cancel the Symposium this year, we opted for the unknown: “Let’s try to give people the chance to connect over food and thinking and conversation about food in all its aspects, even if it all has to happen at a distance.” It was an ambitious, perhaps audacious is the word, decision.

And this experience we’ve all been on, that has depended on the hard work and generosity of many, especially all our wonderful tech support people and our dedicated, congenial web developers at Igloo, and some good luck too, has been more memorable than any of us could have imagined.

I held my breath with anticipation on June 30th when the VSymp site went live for the first time. And then I remember laughing with pleasure at its spaciousness and its possibilities: recipes! photos! cross-connections with other Symposiasts! The Fringe! a train ride to Oxford! And our Chair Elisabeth Luard welcoming us all with charm and grace.

Between that day and the start of the Symposium weekend a lot of tech matters still needed to be figured out, and they were, sometimes on the fly, by a committed and sometimes crazed crew led by our Director Ursula Heinzelmann and Trustee David Matchett. Could we do breakout sessions at our social events on the weekend? How would it work if we just did it arbitrarily? These were some of the many questions that got answered by doing. The tech hosts moved us around, we met each other and chatted in various configurations. The whole process was fun and very freeing in many ways.

On the noticeboard and in those early social conversations I learned that some people had already made some of the recipes from David Tanis and Asma Khan, and from Fogo Island, and were planning to make more. That cooking and tasting and reporting back continued through the weeks of the conference, reminding us all that there are many ways to share food.

It was a treat to be welcomed to the weekend on Friday afternoon by our president Claudia Roden, sitting gracefully in her green garden, rather than up on a platform. Her words and her presence are always a promise of good things to come, as well as a reminder of the many years Symposiasts have been meeting to talk about food in all its aspects, and to eat together.

Happily our tech team had taped a backup of philosopher Charles Spence’s opening keynote on Gastrophysics, because though, ironically, he was one of the few Symposiasts actually in Oxford in July, he had technical problems and could not deliver his presentation live. We did get to ask him questions afterwards, in a discussion hosted with ease by Len Fisher, but not to see him, for his tech problems continued. In some way those first-session glitches felt like a good-luck omen to me: if we could survive that early bumpy ride, then the Starship was truly launched.

There were great conversations after the keynote, over gin from the Isle of Harris (or a substitute), and then we moved on to Fogo Island, with its beauties and its hardships, and a glimpse of the foods and traditions that sustain the people of the island. At the bar afterwards the talk was lively. We never managed to go to breakout sessions, because we were all so entranced by what we were hearing from Zita Cobb and chef Timothy Charles of Fogo Island Inn, about the variety of berries on the island, the traditional way cod was fished and salted, and much more. Then it was time to watch Fabrizia Lanza’s moving film “Amaro” from Sicily, our third island of the evening.

Saturday’s “One Good Spice” lunch was a knockout, with recipes by David Tanis and spice and herb wisdom from Jill Norman. The Tanis cooking videos got applause from many, with their calm tone and lovely clarity. And Instagram has been loaded with images of people’s versions of his courgette pancakes and his black-pepper lamb. In the afternoon we had our second fascinating keynote, by scholar of Chinese herbs and medicine Vivienne Lo, with an informative discussion hosted by Fuchsia Dunlop: who better to ask questions about herbs in China past and present?

Saturday drinks at the end of the afternoon started with a talk about anise and the rakı made with it in Turkey, with lots of interesting conversations in the breakout rooms. It was a great opener to the Asma Khan dinner with its array of recipes that are still entrancing cooks on several continents. Asma Khan is thoughtful and powerful in her conception of what needs to happen in the food world. Her ideas have challenged us all to think freshly about what is possible. The warm conversations in the breakout rooms at the post-dinner bar reflected that, as did the live discussion with her the following week which touched many of us deeply.

As if we hadn’t already been dazzled by aromas and flavours, after dinner on Saturday we visited the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul via Gamze Ineceli’s lovely documentary, travelling virtually to a place that many long to visit or to return to when travel becomes more possible.

Sunday morning brought two prize-givings. First came the announcement of the Sophie Coe prize, awarded to Suzanne Belovari for her essay “Viennese Cuisine Before Hitler: One Cuisine in the use of Two Nations.” Next came the Symposium’s Rising Scholar Award, given to Julia Fine, who presented her very clear and interesting paper on turmeric’s culinary role as a colouring in food in early modern Britain.

At lunch we were invited to come up with our own meal. For some it was lunchtime, for others supper, and in North America it was breakfast. We watched a lovely film about the great Sri Owen, and then engaged in a fascinating live discussion with Sri, as well as with the film-maker Janice Gabriel. It was thrilling to watch and listen as Sri Owen talked with her long-time friend Claudia Roden, and to marvel at how much both of them, so well-loved, have contributed to our understanding of the world.

In the afternoon we heard the reports from the Young Chefs (weren’t they terrific? we hope to welcome them back next year) and then had the pleasure of listening to Harold McGee’s keynote, focussed on smells. He talked about basil, thyme, and mint, about why and how herbs defend themselves with strong smells and tastes, as well as other weapons, and much more. The live discussion of his talk on the following day, hosted by Clive Cookson, was equally illuminating. I’m impatient to get hold of his new book Nose Dive, due out in the autumn.

The day wrapped up then, but unlike our usual end of Symposium Sunday afternoon, there was no room for regret that it was over, for it was moving into its live discussion phase.

Instead of being crammed into a weekend, the papers and presentations, were instead posted and available to be read and listened to at any time, no longer confined to a time and a place. And the presentations will stay up on the site, now that we’ve come to the end of the VSymp. (The papers, being drafts, will come down, as will the Q & A under them, so that they can be edited by their authors and by Proceedings editor Mark McWilliams, and made ready for publication.)

Despite the fact that we were going virtual, Trustee Cathy Kaufmann, who has a genius for programming as well as remarkable attentiveness to the intersections between paper topics, had arranged the weekend’s schedule into panels of presenters as if we were actually going to be at St Catz. That work of hers paid off in the groupings of the “panels”: two or three papers whose topics intersected at the practical or theoretical or metaphorical level or all of them. The result was that when we moved into the live discussions – one or two a day – the papers and presenters, and also the Symposiasts attending the discussions and posing questions in the chat threads, came to life in a remarkable way that we rarely are able to achieve in the limited time we have for each session at St Catz.

The live discussions have been extremely interesting. And the chats alongside too. I made it to most of them because I felt greedy. I didn’t want to miss out, and unlike at St Catz, I didn’t have to. Judging from the number of people came to them, it seems many Symposiasts felt the same way. They shaped my week: each day or two I’d read the upcoming papers and watch the presentations I haven’t seen already, in time to be ready for the next discussions. The themes of the panels were wonderfully varied, and the papers travelled in time and space, from Apicius and garum in Rome, to cinnamon harvest in Sri Lanka, both colonial and present, to chile pepper varieties and their processing and use in China, Turkey, and Japan, and in hot sauce in the USA.

The discussions also gave us a chance to expand our personal tools, both the Wiki-editathon sessions with Roberta Wedge that demystified and encouraged becoming a contributor to Wiki, and the two sessions on Barbara Wheaton’s remarkable research tool, The Sifter (www.thesifter.org). And on our penultimate day we were again able to spend time with Sri Owen, cook and writer and beloved Symposiast as she talked to us and in conversation with Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden, and Jill Norman about her food and her personal history. It was a remarkable session.

As we approached the last discussion days, I found myself bracing for the end of the VSymp, cushioned by my anticipation of the last keynote and also the topic selection process, one of my favourite parts of the Symposium each year. Both lived up to my expectations, and in fact surpassed them.

In his keynote food scholar and author Krishnendu Ray took an informed birds-eye view of the Symposium, discerning larger threads in the presentations and highlighting themes, and talking about the ways in which the Symposium differs from most academic meetings. Themes he noted included the near eradication of foraging and the loss of traditional knowledge of specific plants; thoughts about gastronomic logic as opposed to market logic; and the sense of the “anglosphere  devouring others” which I took to be the consumption by the entitled and wealthy of the production and resources of the less powerful. Altogether his talk was a wonderfully detailed reminder of the richness of the papers this year and of the ideas they explored. Krishnendu also had praise for the general approach of the Symposium. He pointed out that Symposium papers avoid “methodological nationalism” and that responses to papers in the Q & A and discussions are generally positive and constructive, the obverse of the academic tendency to “tear down”. As Fuchsia Dunlop pointed out, this reflects the original goal of Symposium co-founder Alan Davidson that the Symposium should take an irreverent approach to academic disciplines.

In the discussion following his keynote, Krishnendu talked about the way in which disgust for segments of society, often expressed as food disgust, is now used as a political weapon in both India and the US to marginalize non-dominant populations. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of food as a way of understanding the worlds of power and politics, economics and culture. And it reinforced the role of the Symposium as a bridge between disciplines and between academia and the wider world, as Rachel Laudan and others pointed out in the chat. Krishnendu also spoke eloquently about the need for integrity in our engagement with the food culture of others. We could have continued listening and discussing for a lot longer.

But we had to move on to the delightfully contested question of the theme for 2023. There were many appealing topics full of potential, from “cities” to “emotions”; from “borders” to “technology”. We went into breakout rooms to talk about our choices and ideas, a novelty permitted by Zoom. To give a feel of the noisy atmosphere when we make these decisions at St Catz we all unmuted briefly and talked at each other loudly. The suspense was tangible. And finally, on the third round of voting, it was decided by a clear margin: the theme for 2023 is “Rules & Ritual.”

Meantime we were reminded by Ursula that to keep our expanded vision alive we’ll need to raise substantial funds (btw: here’s where you can invest in our future). Having taken this first flight on the Starship, I can say that everything feels possible, if we all pull together to make it happen.

I’ve been trying to sort out what exactly has made the whole VSymp so memorable and enjoyable. I think many elements all worked together, like spices and herbs in a well-judged dish. This as my impressionistic take on why I’ve loved this voyage and why I look forward to the next one.

This year for the first time, because events were spread out, we were able to watch all the presentations, rather than having to choose between equally fascinating topics in different rooms scheduled simultaneously. That meant that those who wanted to could participate in the live discussions in a more meaningful way. And with a full hour for discussion there was time to delve more deeply into various fascinating aspects with the presenters, instead of being short of time.

There’s nothing like full access to make a conference feel extremely rewarding.

The V-Symp brought us a sound-track: amazing and surprising music, each time specially chosen to match the panel topic, like wine to match a feast, that welcomed us in and ushered us out of each discussion session. It became a passion for many, the music.

Without the constraints of the college’s limited accommodation, we were able to double the number of Symposiasts from 250 to over 500, which was great. But more importantly, the lower cost of attending, as well as the convenience of not having to leave home and young children and other responsibilities, meant that more people from near and far (over 40 countries) were able to participate. It’s thrilling that we have been able to open the doors to a wider world. We are all thereby enriched.

And that richness continues. While this voyage has come to an end, many parts of the Starship are still accessible. The site will continue to enable the Notice Board and our conversations by mail, so that we can continue to stay in touch and to share ideas. The V-Fringe will stay posted, but is no longer live for new additions. The taped keynotes and also the paper presentations will be up, but the draft papers will be gone. The Bloomsbury Food Library access ends on August 10, but the rest of the book stalls remain open.

On the human connection front, before we launched the Starship VSYMP I was hoping that the warmth and generosity of the live Symposium at St Catz would somehow survive its transposition to the virtual sphere. I wasn’t sure how that could happen, but it was to me the most important goal.

And I feel that we have all, together, really managed that, and more so. We chatted in the tea breaks and at the bar in the evening, in all together and in breakout rooms. We got to learn about our fellow Symposiasts and to recognise each other’s names and faces. I feel I met more people and built more of a connection with them than would have been possible in a short weekend, even though we have been virtual and not physically together. What a bonus.

I look forward to renewing our intimacy at next year’s Symposium, whether it is solely virtual or also has a live weekend as well. And meantime I’ll be contemplating our terrific 2021 theme – Food and Imagination – and the wondrous possibilities of the topic.

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V-Symposiasts listening to a panel talk.

Baking and Filming for the V-Symposium

Symposiast Gerhardus Geldenhuis volunteers his services with the movie-camera and the bread-oven
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Claudia Roden recording her welcome speech. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I was filled with excitement when I was asked to film an opening piece for the V-Symposium with Claudia Roden.

And also – if I am honest – a bit of fear given the responsibility. That tinge of fear meant I triple checked the cameras for charged batteries, clean memory cards and recording formats. Tripods were checked, microphones tested and for good measure some filming in my friends garden to verify lens-choice.

I was thus well armed when I arrived in the leafy London suburb to do the filming. I was also at the time being extra cautious about getting sick so had been strict about outside contact and felt comfortable that I was not a carrier of Covid-19, the common cold or any other ailment, mental conditions being naturally excluded from this health statement!

I was warmly received by Claudia in her garden with coffee and snacks, and in between sipping my coffee and chewing on some dates, I was setting up equipment and scouting the best spot in the garden for filming. With the location decided and all the equipment set up, Claudia, being the consumate professional, offered a number of wardrobe alternatives for the filming. But I assured her that she looked lovely already and the colour was perfect for the camera – neither too dark nor bright. We also used a garden table as a prop, which I would happily have used bare, but Claudia suggested a tablecloth, which did look much better and emphasised the need for a women’s touch. The process of filming went really well, and was completed in two and a half takes, mostly because I was picky: when filming, more is always better than less.

Afterwards we had a lovely chat about food, life experiences, politics and heritage. It was getting dark by now. Which was my cue to pack up, have the last sip of by-now cold coffee and a last delicious date and drive back to home to edit the opening video, which I hope everyone will find as enjoyable to watch as the filming was for me.

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Set up in Claudia Roden’s garden. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I had started my journey with this year’s subject back in October 2019, with the idea of making spiced breads as a small contribution to the meals over the weekend. I wanted to bake a bread that is delicious and intriguing that encourages conversation and hopefully someone walks away with new ideas about bread. So, armed with my new spice grinder and a copy of Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices, I spent a few evenings after work reading through the book and deciding on a few possibilities. Turns out the results are decidedly mixed, I used the spice sparingly to start with because I did not want it to overpower the bread.

So this was not going to be simple or easy. The sourdough process of leaving the dough overnight plays a big part in the flavour, so not only had I to contest with finding or dreaming up a spice-mix that would be delicious, but it would also need to survive the assault of bacteria and yeast in my fridge overnight, and then face the final battle for flavour longevity in the oven.

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Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I began experimenting with different types of flour, emmer, khorasan, einkorn my own grounded rye and a great quality- type 55 (550 if you’re German) – and white flour from Shipton Mill (good enough for the Queen). The different types of flour bring additional flavour and texture. But for me good bread starts with the scent. It should smell amazing, a bit of nuttiness mixed with toastiness as the crust browns. It should have a crust that cracks and tears, it should be soft yet chewy. It should keep well and taste good right through its shelf-life. My boss at the bakery where I learned to bake, used to say all warm bread tastes great but the true test is when it’s cooled.

The journey, however, has reminded me of the symposium’s mission: to change the conversation, expand the table, improve the plate. Science allied to art produces good food. Science tells you that certain spices are water soluble and others are oil soluble, which affects the taste. Art is what enables you to decide which flavours work well together.

I am excited to have made the bread-experiment because I have been able to expand friends and family’s tables with new flavours while doing virtual bread courses during the Covid-19 crisis. I am also excited because I am now thinking about flavour in a whole new way and looking forward to applying this to my everyday cooking. Even though I was not to be able to share some of these tastes in person with fellow Symposiasts, it was worth it in the end.

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Gerhardus Geldenhuis and Tim Kelsey in St Catz kitchen. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

The Story of Amaro: Foraging for Bitter Greens in Sicily

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard introduces one of the evening events at the V-Symp
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. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Fabrizia Lanza, owner and director of Anna Tasca Lanza, the world-renowned cooking school and centre of culinary knowledge in rural Sicily, is contributing a video, Amaro, an examination of the role of bitterness in foraged greens, to be premiered at the V-Symp as part of our evening programme of events.

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Fabrizia Lanza. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Here’s a little of what Fabrizia says of what is intended as a first step in a continuing exploration of the appreciation of bitterness in foods in Sicily:

Amaro is our first step in a year-long research project on wild-gathered foods in Italy. Not all such foodstuffs are bitter, though many do indeed share this characteristic. We will be drawing on many of the things we present in Amaro, while digging deeper into the role of wild food in rural Sicily’s food landscape and culture.

The project will include studying the social bonds around foraging and consumption of bitter greens, how the production, sharing and preparation of wild foods impacts the structures of everyday life and the distribution of roles and tasks among groups and families.

At the same time as examining the role of bitter foodstuffs in Sicilian cuisine, we will be taking into account changes in today’s perception of food preparation in the light of Slow Food and the re-evaluation of authenticity in the culinary traditions of the island and elsewhere.

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Cavolicelli di Vigna. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Bitterness is the least appreciated of the four flavours – five if you count umami. The message is danger, approach with caution. Cardoon, feverfew, wormwood, dandelion, chicory, olives, chestnuts are just a handful of our food-plants in which bitterness is present.

Cultivation, it’s fair to say, has emasculated the robust flavours appreciated by our ancestors, favouring mildness and sweetness, teaching our taste-buds to reject bitterness. Sweet, salty and sour are unchallenging since one can be made to balance the other.

Not so with bitterness. Bitterness is an absolute. Nature’s warning that a leaf or plant or fruit is poisonous. Babies hate bitterness – just a touch on the tip of the tongue produces instant rejection. Young children wrinkle their noses and spit. And with reason. It’s not until we can decide for ourselves what we like and don’t like that we are able to choose.

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Cooked Bitter Greens. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

As adults, instinct still warns of poison, but the intellect suggests enjoyment. Much as our tolerance for danger increases with every risk we take, the same is true of bitterness. We can teach ourselves to unlearn what instinct tells us, though some of us never do. And with reason. Bitterness in fruits and fungi – the wrong russula, an untrustworthy berry – is a warning you’ve made the wrong choice. Just a touch on the tip of the tongue and you’ll know.

Our ancestors discovered through trial and error that bitterness in otherwise edible roots – a few members of the bean family, cassava, certain roots and plant-foods that are dietary staples – could be leeched of their dangerous chemicals by soaking, burying, fermenting. In wild greens, bitterness is part of the attraction – once we learn to love it, we seek it out wherever we find it.

Bitterness, in short, is a pleasure worth cultivating. A shock to the taste-buds, challenge to the intellect, an iron fist in the velvet glove. It’s addictive. They’ve done the chemistry. You have been warned.

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Picked Bitter Greens. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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