Ploughing on

Categories: News and previews

Jane Levi on this year’s Oxford Symposium and how a simple ploughman’s lunch can tell us much about the landscape of British food

Image: Regula Ysewijn

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, met again over the weekend of 7th-9th July, and this time one of their newest trustees, David Matchett—who by day is the Market development manager—brought lunch for his 250 fellow symposiasts with him.

A glorified ploughman’s (an inspired choice that chimed with the Symposium’s theme of ‘food and landscape’) the menu provided as much food for thought as nourishment, featuring a plethora of Borough Market’s suppliers (Montgomery’s cheddar and Stichelton from Neal’s Yard Dairy, unpasteurised butter from Hook & Sons, bread from Olivier’s Bakery, Rosebud Preserves’ Yorkshire pickle and New Forest cider from The Cider House to wash it all down) and with it, a visual representation of British history—namely, the deep influences of other cultures, particularly European trading partners, on our food landscape.

Ploughmen of the future
It begs the question, what would this particular meal have been for the almost mythical early ploughman, whose sustenance it was supposed to have been (and does it really matter)? It makes us wonder what its kitsch reinvention as a marketing idea in the fifties through the seventies tells 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.

Take Stichelton, for example. Made in the traditional stilton style, but 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 pasteurisation. 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?

Convivial eating
The printed menu, designed by Jake Tilson with characteristic wit and beauty, challenged the throng to think and talk about these kinds of questions as they ate.

Ben Houge, an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, worked 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, and help bring the spirit of the Market to Oxford. Sound and colour evoked the traditional city landscape of shopping, convivial eating and an appreciation of the multiple communities of food that combine to produce our meals, even—or perhaps especially—ones as apparently simple as a ploughman’s lunch.