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Faith, food and farming

Mark Oakley, the new dean of Southwark Cathedral, on his roots in Shropshire farming country, the connections between food and spirituality, and his menu for the Easter celebrations  


Words: Mark Oakley / Images: Tom Bradley

It’s great to find myself as dean of a cathedral surrounded by food. Having grown up in Shropshire, I know something of the hard work and commitment of those who produce and sell our food. My neighbours were dairy and vegetable farmers, cheesemakers, butchers, honey farmers, bakers, or the owners of small businesses connected with them. There is a rather cruel saying: “Shropshire born, Shropshire bred – strong in the body, thick in the head.” In truth, it’s quite a good description of me. However, as I grew up, I learned so much about the lives of these hard-working people who often get forgotten when we rush around supermarkets or shove down a quick sandwich. To find myself a neighbour again to such people feels to me a bit like a homecoming,

The Karaway Bakery stall with Southwark Cathedral in the background

I’m struck by how food is so often intimately connected with religion and spirituality. I think it may be to do with two truths. First, that food is made to be shared – something about the human heart slips into place when you sit down together and do exactly that. In my own Christian tradition, to share bread and wine shows both our uniqueness and our equality as we become ‘companions’, a word that literally means ‘those who break bread together’. Secondly, food is a great symbol of the future. We need it to live another day – to be strengthened to achieve things. Faith, too, asks us to be more loyal to the future than to the past. The bread we share in church is eaten to make us more hungry – hungry for goodness, justice and community.

Sharing food is an essential part of our Easter celebrations. You won’t be surprised to know that my Shropshire roots mean that Easter for me has to have some Welsh spring lamb in it. I travel back to the county each Christmas to get my goose from the fields near where I was born (I love goose!), and I’m tempted to do the same for my Welsh lamb, as Wales is about six miles from where my grandmother (aged 102), who brought me up as a child, still lives. She always used to roast our Easter lamb simply with some garlic, served with leeks, homemade mint sauce, and roast potatoes – they were like little duvets inside, they were so fluffy. I’m a cheese lover, so some fresh goat’s cheese with some damson jelly rounded the meal off well.

My partner enjoys baking, so these days a lot of cakes emerge from the kitchen which I have to keep my hands off. At Easter, though, we always try to make a simnel cake. I tend to roll the balls of marzipan to represent the 11 disciples of Jesus (Judas gets missed out…). Together with a good cup of black tea, I find myself putting my feet up after a busy Easter day in church with a happy slice.

When I was a curate at the age of 24, I worked for a wonderful vicar in St John’s Wood. He had a tradition of opening a bottle of champagne after the Easter morning service and I have to admit that, following his early death at the age of 59, I tend to buy a bottle and do the same now to toast his memory and all the wonderful things he taught me. I have no time for religion that tries to be an example of power. I just try to remember those who have instead shown me the power of example.

This year I think I’m going to buy, or maybe make, some Easter paska to remember the people of Ukraine. Ukrainians love horseradish too, so maybe I’ll look out for some of that too – I like the way it perks up a dish. Other Easter treats for me include hot cross buns (of course!), babka, pulla from Finland, colomba di pasqua, Jamaican Easter spice cake, and capirotada from Mexico. The problem is that Holy Week and Easter are so busy I rarely get the chance to shop, never mind bake, but this year I’m determined that I’ll have a go at making at least one of these!