Nourish both Body and Soul!
This year’s Oxford Food Symposium was for me one of the most inspiring!
Beginning with the meals, I start from the last, the Sunday lunch that concluded the in-person gathering at St-Katz’s college.
Fried nori with spicy tomato kimchi, cold soup of kefir and beetroots, and torched vegetables with freekeh in orange glaze.
As every year, the first weekend of July was packed with talks, lively discussions, and of course wonderful meals at the college’s unique modernist dining hall. While the on-line Oxford Food Symposium continues until the end of July, I cannot stop thinking about yet one more memorable meal created by Young Chefs from the four corners of the world: Τo make the Symposium more accessible to professionals early in their careers the Friends of the Oxford Symposium sponsor a program of Young Chef Grants. Their mentor this year was Jinok Kim-Eicken, the artist and chef who believes that cooking is “…the process, the joy of not always knowing what is going to happen next.”
Chosen by Harold McGee and Elaine Mahon, Andiswa Mqedlana from South Africa, Jonas Dalekas from Lithuania, Minwoo Jung from South Korea and US, and Shannon Compton from the US served us a memorable lunch that included irresistible, crunchy, fried nori accompanied by spicy tomato kimchi, a refreshing cold soup of kefir and beetroots, and torched vegetables with freekeh in orange glaze.
The Symposium’s first dinner, on Friday evening, was devised by my old friend Kamal Mouzawak, a culinary changemaker who grew up in the gardens and kitchens of Lebanon. It was cooked by Tara Habis, Beirut-born architect who now heads the kitchen of Tawlet in Paris. I particularly enjoyed, and couldn’t stop eating --but forgot to photograph-- the crunchy, cracker-like zaatar manaiish offered in the garden to accompany Yeni Raki, the delicious Turkish ouzo. Kamal invited us to “Make Food not War” and didn’t shy away from proposing some of the most repeated Lebanese dishes like Tabouleh or hommos (humus), along with lamb glazed with pomegranate molasses and an irresistible nutty, spiced pilaf. They were all utterly delicious! OFS director Ursula Heinzelmann chose precious Chateau Ksara wines from the Bekaa Valley to accompany the sumptuous dinner.
The charming, incredibly talented Simi Rezai Ghassemi cooked a truly memorable lunch on Saturday. It was an edible demonstration of “Food Rituals in Iran: Nazr, Nowruz, Aza”. Nazr is the tradition of sharing ‘Osh’ (a rich pottage) to give thanks for your prayers being answered --the recovery from the illness of a child, or some other important event that affects an individual household.
Writer, cookery teacher of Persian-Azeri cuisine, Simi was born in Iran and raised in Anglesey, North Wales. For the last fourteen years she has been hosting supper clubs and teaching cooking classes with an emphasis on the cooking of the ‘Silk Route,’ in Simi’s Kitchen, in Bath.
Micha Schäfer was studying theology when he realized that what he really wanted to do was cook. Finding his way into the kitchen through dish-washing, since 2015 is the much-acclaimed chef of Berlin’s Nobelhart und Schmutzig. He prepared Saturday dinner, explaining that his food “…put a strong priority on innovation, not least in his ability to evoke a true sense of place, and thus send everyone at the table on an emotional journey through taste.” The dishes he served with extra local ingredients included Witheridge, Bix, and Highmoor, all delicious cheeses from Nettlebed Creamery in Oxfordshire, served with sourdough rye bread baked at St Katz’s kitchen, and accompanied by wonderful radishes, green beans, and other delightful seasonal vegetables and greens grown around Oxford.
About the great, rare wines served before and after this year’s last Oxford dinner, Ursula Heinzelmann noted: “Highly regarded in the Middle Ages, the Gewurztraminer grape had been cannibalized and derided when in the 1990s a few pioneers such as Willi Stürz of Cantina Tramin reinvented it in all its beauty […] In Romania, wine producers had to rebuild their rules and rituals, to rediscover their ancient roots. Davino in Dealu Mare, on the Carpathians’ southern slopes, looking towards the Black Sea, has been at the forefront of this movement, emphasizing local varieties such as Feteasca Alba and Feteasca Neagra.”
The Symposium goes back to 1979 when two noted Oxford scholars, the brilliant food historian Alan Davidson and the social historian Theodore Zeldin, were bold enough to research a then revolutionary topic for academe – food.
Jake Tilson created once more the unique menu cards for the Symposium
This Year’s theme Food and Rituals was broad enough to include Dimitri Xygalata’s keynote on how rituals, even the seemingly senseless and quite painful ones like walking on live fire or piercing the body “...make life worth living.” Long-time symposiast, professor and rabbi Jonathan Brumberg-Krauss in his keynote explored how “the food rules and rituals, whether articulated intentionally or performed unconsciously in our biologically necessary acts of eating, construct and maintain our fundamental relationships in the world and define who or what we are in it.”
One of the most unexpected, totally fascinating keynote presentations was about Steinbeisser, Jouw Wijnsma and Martin Kullik’s Amsterdam based Experimental Gastronomy initiative which brings together renowned chefs and artists for a one-of-a-kind culinary exercise/experience. During these exceptional dinners the artists create unique and very unusual cutlery and dishware that celebrate experimentation and the search for new ways to enjoy food but also companionship.
Among the particularly diverse papers presented this year was one about a 15th century rhymed cookbook, as well as Nader Mehravari’s talk/demo on the traditional Iranian food and drink habits, and rules developed over millennia that still govern their culinary practices.
Harvard Professor Janet Beizer, after her much-enjoyed trip to Georgia --organized by my very old friend, and symposium trustee Naomi Duguit-- gave a critical and amusing account of Alexandre Dumas's late 1858 Voyage au Caucase. She pointed out that Dumas’ account “…is a better source for what it reflects about presuppositions and projections of French gastronomic laws than for what it reveals – and simultaneously veils – about Georgian culinary rites.”
One of my favorite symposiasts, Voltaire Cang, gave yet one more fascinating talk, this time analyzing the intricate choreography and foods comprising the Japanese Kaiseki, its history, rules, and rituals that are not immediately obvious to non-practitioners. Young Tali Cohen’s touching and very eloquently delivered paper relates how her Holocaust survivor maternal grandparents, Bubbe and Zayda, fed their grandchildren “…developing a code of exuberant, excessive, occasionally exhausting alimentary practice” that shaped every meal they shared together.
Salma Seri’s fascinating account of the ceremonies surrounding the sanctity of rainwater in Saudi Arabia had a special meaning for me, as we are amid southern Europe’s prolonged scorching heat, and surrounded by forest fires: I could not stop thinking with horror that similar rituals may become part of our lives, too, all around the Eastern Mediterranean; probably here, on Kéa too…
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