Mad hatters, Modernist stuffings, and four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are all on the menu at this year's Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, being held in the English university city. First launched in 1981 by philosopher Theodore Zeldin and the late food historian Alan Davidson, the weekend conference aims to stimulate discussion on this most basic of human needs.
In its 2003 obituary of Davidson, The Guardian described him as a "writer of distinction, he was not just interested in cookery but also its lore, ethnography and history, as well as the taxonomy of edible species."
With those principles in mind, this year's symposiasts will consider "wrapped and stuffed preparations from every culinary tradition on the planet." Think pies and pasties, charcuterie and salami, empanadas and strudel, sushi and sandwiches. As the program states: "From the earliest leaf-protected foodstuffs baked in a pit oven or roasted in the embers of the campfire, to the ready-made fast foods of today, cooks have long used some form of wrapper both to shield delicate foodstuffs from the heat of the fire as well as presenting a meal in a form which can conveniently be eaten from the hand."
The symposium will kick off with a lecture by Australian chef David Thompson, whose London restaurant, Nahm, was the first Thai restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star. There is also a branch of Nahm in Thailand. In Thompson's view, "food and history are a delicious combination, and a meaningful one at that. You can chart the course of a nation through its grits."
At a reception before the lecture, nibbles from Nahm will be accompanied by a Thai wine, Monsoon Valley Colombard. Grown at Siam Winery's Hua Hin Hills vineyard, its producers describe it as having "light to medium body, crisp acidity, and complex aromas of citrus and green apple."
The reception will be followed by "Dinner Wrapped Up," prepared by Rowley Leigh of London’s Le Cafe Anglais in association with Tim Kelsey, head chef of St Catherine's College:
Subsequent meals during the weekend will include a "German Sausage Feast," a "Wrapped and Stuffed Feast from Gaziantep in South Eastern Turkey" (preceded by a reception with Turkish wines), and "Splendid Sandwiches." On that theme, the program asks whether "other more lofty sensibilities are engaged when developing these preparations than a simple need to satisfy hunger ... Might the term post-Modern be applied to the fancy up-market sandwich-constructs – coronation chicken with sun-dried tomatoes in wood-ovened ciabbata – on sale in every supermarket?"
With food for the mind being the most important part of the symposium, participants will hear a range of presentations, including:
Elizabeth Luard, the trustee director of the symposium, is herself a noted cookery writer. The appeal of the conference, she says, lies in its informality and the opportunity to make new contacts. "How else can two individuals fascinated with the finer points of food in Arabic poetry ever find one another, or an individual fighting to save a regional cheese be sure of a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience?"
And what better way to illustrate the symposium's informality than a Mad Hatter's Tea Party on the opening afternoon? The house rules include instructions to "check teapots for dormant rodents before adding hot water," while the menu boasts rainbow sandwiches, "dormice with squidgy pink innards," and "peppercorn hedgehogs." Needless to say, anyone who's late to the party "will have their ears severely tweaked."