For one weekend each summer, some of the brightest minds in food gather from across the world at Oxford University for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. For the last few years, Borough Market has hosted a lunch at the Symposium, showcasing the Market’s wonderful array of produce, in fitting with the year’s theme—this year, food and power. Ellie Costigan reflects
Words: Ellie Costigan
Images (below): Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir
Food and power. My first response to that notion was that this would be all about supermarkets and food corporations—but perhaps that’s my innate cynicism talking. Adjust the sentence slightly to ‘the power of food’, though, and a different picture is painted altogether. Love. Comfort. Community. Togetherness. Nourishment.
The abstract nature of food and power as the overarching topic of this year’s Oxford Food Symposium—an international meeting of some of the brightest minds in food—evoked a similarly broad response from its speakers. We heard talks on the role of food in diplomatic negotiations; food as a political tool in communist Russia; why women rarely reach the rank of sushi master in Japan. We heard how Laurie Nolan, who refers to herself as “a mom”, and a group of campaigners in New York challenged the US Food and Drug Administration body over its registering of native tilefish on the ‘high mercury levels list’—and won. Cannibalism popped up at one point. Less surprisingly, issues surrounding class, gender and race came up frequently—themes which reverberated through both the plethora of talks, and in the food.
Each meal at the Oxford Symposium is devised and cooked by a different guest chef, in response to the year’s theme. This year, this included regional fare from south-east Mexico, courtesy of Sandra Miano of Restaurante El Mural de los Poblanos: a carnival of flavours, presented with obvious care and dedication. Saturday’s lunch celebrated the healing power of cooking together, made with the assistance of four women—Munira Mahmud, Fatima Odonkor, Halima Al-Huthaifi and Lillian Olwa—whose community was affected by the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Through communal cooking, these women found comfort and renewed resilience in the face of disaster, eventually prompting them to set up the Hubb (meaning ‘love’ in Arabic) Community Kitchen.
With her hands
The evening meal, an expression of “the power and versatility of frugal Greek cooking”, was also highly personal. Put together by cookery school owner and long-time Symposiast Aglaia Kremezi and chef Michael Costa of Zaytinya, it managed to evoke a sense of Greek familial conviviality, via full-flavoured slow roast lamb and a delicious array of (title-defying) accoutrements.
Sunday’s lunch, as has become tradition, was provided by Borough Market—masterminded by David Matchett, Symposium trustee and the Market’s head of food policy development—and entitled ‘With her hands’ in deference to the female growers, cooks and stallholders behind the produce that made up the meal. Think next level ploughman’s: onion and caraway rye and sourdoughs from Karaway Bakery; Italian Alpine honey provided by From Field and Flower; an array of Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses; and Rosebud Preserves’ preserves, all of which were chosen both as a way of championing the skills of the women who made them, and for their complementary textures and flavours. Like a very good “English mezze”, as David described it.
The lunch was introduced by four young chefs (who were, this year, coincidentally all female—fittingly, David laughed, not wanting to “mansplain”): another element of Borough’s regular involvement with the Symposium. Each year, two to four burgeoning chefs are offered a grant to attend the Symposium and cook alongside the guest chef for Friday’s dinner. This year, the selected four—who’d flown in from Brazil, Turkey, Ireland and the USA, respectively—also came to Borough Market beforehand to help choose the ingredients for Sunday’s lunch, talking to traders about the produce and gleaning information to inform their presentation to 250-plus Symposiasts: a daunting task for anyone, but handled by each like Borough natives.
These meals are grand affairs, executed with the help of Tim Kelsey (probably one of the calmest chefs in the biz—truly, he’s remarkable) and his St Catz team, hosted in the main hall at several communal banqueting tables. It’s as Hogwarts as you’d imagine something called the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery hosted at Oxford University to be. These meals are a demonstration of the power of food in themselves, harking back to those (albeit slightly cheesy) sentiments touched on earlier: the power of food to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together and break bread (literally, in this instance); the power of food as a springboard for building relationships, here bolstered by a shared passion for food in all its guises as common ground. Whatever the year’s theme may be, at the Oxford Symposium, the power of food is truly apparent—in the very best way.