Waste not, want not

Categories: News and previews

Jane Levi attends the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery and discovers the joy of a reclaimed lunch

Image: Regula Ysewijn

Brilliantly conceived as a random list scribbled on the back of an envelope, Jake Tilson’s witty menu design couldn’t have been more appropriate for the delicious Saturday lunch served at the 2016 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. Responding in an equally creative way to the conference theme of Offal: Rejected, Orphaned and Reclaimed, Borough Market and the Oxford Food Bank worked together to produce an extraordinary meal—a feast fit for a room full of food writers, chefs and serious students of food—composed entirely from market waste.

The deceptively simple menu of soup, mushrooms, and bread and cheese unfolded in all its glory. A zingingly fresh vegetable soup, fragrant with fresh dill, its dark orange flecked with the bright green of broad beans and a little chopped celery, was accompanied with toasted cheese on wide slices of white country-style bread and fresh chunks cut from a multitude of rescued loaves, from French sticks to dark, dense rye. 

A new approach to waste
This was followed by a refined fricassee-meets-risotto of oyster mushrooms and a little carrot and cabbage, with rice and new potatoes in a light sauce, alongside a green salad of mixed leaves in a grainy mustard dressing. It was hard to believe that such fresh herbs, crisp lettuces and vegetables (supplied by Ted’s Veg and Oxford Food Bank suppliers) and plentiful oyster mushrooms with their springy bite intact (cultivated by GroCycle in beds of waste coffee grounds) would otherwise have been destined for the dump. Their conversion by chef Tim Kelsey’s team into such a sophisticated meal really brought home to us the necessity of taking a new approach to our food waste, and the fantastically valuable service provided by charities like the Oxford Food Bank and Borough Market’s collaboration with FareShare. Left-over needn’t ever mean old, tired or boring.

The meal closed with the promised bread and cheese, delivered in the form of a thin sliver of a dense yet light English bread pudding, made by Bread Ahead from day old bread waste, gently spiced and studded with dried fruits, and accompanied by a soft, subtle goat curd. This delicious cheese was made from whey, almost all of which is discarded or directed to animal feed but which—happily for us—is also saved by Gourmet Goat and converted into this magnificent cheese, made to a Cypriot family recipe. A fresh summer fruit coulis and lightly stewed summer fruits brought colour the plate and left all of us wondering about a system that could require such perfect fruits to be discarded.

Imagination and creativity
Over lunch, Cathy Howard of the Oxford Food Bank emphasised that the food we were eating wasn’t only for our (admittedly rarefied) specialist audience. Every day, their vans deliver fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and groceries from the mundane to the exotic—apples and asparagus; potatoes and quinoa—to a range of charities that support disadvantaged groups with excellent meals made from the finest ingredients. It’s hard to overstate the positive effects on physical and mental wellbeing of providing varied, fresh food, cooked with imagination and creativity through these channels: we surely know by now we can’t feed the world from the cheapest processed packets and cans alone.

Likewise, Borough Market’s David Matchett explained that its commitment to the distribution of traders’ magnificent surplus fruit, vegetables, bread, fish, meat and dairy at the close of the market every Saturday means that over the last year alone they have shared enough food for 13 charities to make 40,000 meals out of 16,000kg of food. What can’t be used is processed into renewable power, fertiliser and water in an anaerobic digester. As more traders sign up to the scheme (currently 20, and increasing), who knows how far these positive feedback loops can extend? On this evidence, a long way—and everyone’s tastebuds will be happy to travel with them.