July 2017

Spotlight on a Meal: A Ploughman’s Lunch from Borough Market

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Image credit: David Matchett
Symposiast Jane Levi considers the politics of a ploughman’s lunch

Every year for the last 35 years a group of food-obsessed scholars, cooks and others from all over the world have gathered together in an Oxford college and spent a joyous weekend thinking about, talking about and eating food. The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a charitable educational trust, will meet again over the weekend of 7th-9th July 2017, and this time one of their newest Trustees, David Matchett — who by day is the Market Development Manager at Borough Market — will be bringing lunch for his 250 fellow symposiasts with him.

Billed as a ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’, an inspired choice that chimes with the Symposium’s theme of ‘Food and Landscape’, the menu provides as much food for thought as nourishment to keep body and soul together. Featuring a plethora of Borough Market’s suppliers: Montgomery’s cheddar and Stichelton supplied by Neal’s Yard Dairy, unpasteurised butter from Hook & Sons, artisan bread from Olivier’s bakery, Rosebud Preserves’ Yorkshire pickle, New Forest Cider, the food represents multiple versions of British history as well as inviting contemplation of the deep influences of other cultures, particularly European trading partners, on our food landscape. It asks us what this particular meal might actually have been for the almost mythical early ‘ploughman’ whose sustenance it was supposed to have been (and whether it really matters); it makes us wonder what its often kitsch reinvention as a marketing idea in the 1950s and through the 1970s might tell us about the political and social landscape of that time; and, crucially, it questions where the British ‘ploughmen’ and food producers of the future might find themselves — and indeed what might be on all of our plates — in a post-Brexit world.

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Image credit: Regula Ysewijn for Borough Market

Every element of the menu raises questions in this context. Take Stichelton, for example. Made in the traditional stilton style, using unpasteurised milk, this cheese is not permitted to call itself stilton because the description used by the British authorities in stilton’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) requires pasteurised milk. A system that across Europe protects traditional food processes has here been used to protect a more recent industrial process. What might the future hold for domestic food producers, particularly those producing smaller quantities of fine foods who might continue to seek protections for their produce and products? What will the British food landscape look like in 10, 50 or 100 years from now?

The printed menu, designed with his usual wit and beauty by Jake Tilson, challenges the convivial throng to think and talk about these kinds of questions as they eat, and Ben Houge, an associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, is working with the Market to design an interactive soundscape to synchronise with the ideas behind the meal and provoke an aural consideration of the political landscape of food. It’s these additional sensual elements – the visual, the aural – that will help bring the spirit of the Market to Oxford. Sound and colour will evoke the traditional city landscape of convivial shopping, convivial eating and an appreciation of the multiple communities of food that combine together to produce our meals, even — or perhaps especially — ones as apparently simple as a Ploughman’s Lunch.