I’m not sure I properly thought it through when I registered for a rare weekend away from little E, and chose to spend it hearing about and eating offal. It’s now been two weeks since I returned from my first visit to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, this year on the subject of ‘Offal: Rejected and Reclaimed Foods’. It’s definitely not the subject I would have chosen for my first visit, but despite my ambivalence for ‘variety meats’, it was a fascinating and really enjoyable weekend. I found a really welcoming community who love food, but more than that are really curious about it. Started by Alan Davidson, the legendary food writer and researcher who compiled the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food, it has grown over the last 37 years from a small gathering of mostly friends to a diverse group of 200 encompassing a huge range of ages and nationalities.
Some of the highlights of the weekend for me (with apologies for dreadful photography):
- Thomas Eagle (above) from Darsham Nurseries, giving a really thoughtful and reflective talk about food waste, featuring his own cavolo nero stalk kimchi.
- Paul Rozin’s barnstorming talk about food and disgust, giving a tour through some of the psychology behind our aversion to some foods, and the different factors that cause it.
- Fuschia Dunlop on duck tongues (above), and describing all the different ways that the Chinese take pleasure in food that mean that foods we might consider offal are transformed into rare and exciting delicacies. I have a particular affection for all the Chinese terms for food textures, a far wider range of descriptions than we have access to in English.
- Benjamin Wurgaft’s thoughtful discussion of laboratory-grown meat, and the philosophy of our reactions and discussions of it.
- Jennifer McLagan’s passionate enthusiasm for getting blood into home kitchens, through home-made blood sausage, blood meringues, blood brownies and more. I can’t say I was entirely convinced, but I admire her passion for the subject!
- Amanda Couch’s brilliant and unforgettable ‘performance’ of liver divination as an after-dinner activity, combining scholarly descriptions of the meaning of ‘reading’ the liver in the ancient world with a very hands-on approach to offal!
There were also a series of lunches and dinners that never failed to leave me stuffed, unable to resist just a little of everything. Some of my favourite dishes from the multi-course menus:
- Jacob Kenedy’s mushroom risotto – perfectly rich and savoury
- Jacob Kenedy’s Grandfather’s balls – featherlight deep-fried ricotta with candied orange and chocolate
- Tongue with carrots and cream sauce – sublime comfort food from Fergus Henderson
- Bread Ahead’s bread pudding – rich, dense and heavy with spices
Mostly my reflection on the weekend is that it is rare to find such a diverse group of people who are so interested in the details of food – how it tastes, where it comes from, what it means in different cultures. Food is so pervasive in British culture now – so many books, so many TV shows, so many celebrity chefs – that it would be easy to think that these people are everywhere. But being interested in making your ‘signature dish’, or critiquing Masterchef from the sofa, or meal planning for the week aren’t the same thing. It’s not that these are bad, or ‘lesser’ interests – I think there was actually very little food snobbery on display at the weekend. If I could put my finger on the difference, it was that this is a group of people who start with food. When they look at a Renaissance painting, they see the food on the table. When they examine history, they want to know what’s happening in the kitchens of the palaces and homes. When they think about travelling around the world, they think in terms of regional specialities, and hidden recipes (as Claudia Roden does). They see the world through the lens of what we eat, how it is made, who grows it and who prepares it.
And it’s not that this is a distorted point of view – it’s genuinely a worthwhile perspective to take. Food is what we share. Some argue that cooking is what defines us as humans. Food connects us to the growing of food, how we cultivate the land, what we do with the waste, the carbon we generate, the seas we fish. It’s in everything. I found it exhilerating but also comforting to be surrounded by these people. And I hope I can go back next year.