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Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery
July 6, 2018 @ 8:00 am - July 8, 2018 @ 5:00 pm£400
The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery is an annual, weekend-long conference on food, its culture and its history. The oldest and most important gathering on this topic, it brings together up to 220 international scholars, journalists, chefs, scientists, sociologists, anthrolopogists—and even committed amateurs—among others, for a serious discussion about the theme at hand.
The Oxford Symposium is held at St. Catherine’s College. Opened in 1962, St. Catz is Oxford’s only Modernist College. Danish architect Arne Jacobsen designed its core buildings and their fittings, which are considered modern masterpieces and are protected by a Grade I architectural listing. The College lies just south of the city centre, only a 10-15 minute walk from the Bodleian Library. Details and pictures can be found on the college website.
Topic for 2018: Seeds
‘Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn!’
George Bernard Shaw.
Seeds are food in themselves, and they contain or promise multitudes of other foods. Without seeds there would be no bread or rice, no pint of beer or cup of espresso, no coconut, and no chocolate. We cook and eat in a world of seeds.
As Thor Hanson wrote in his 2015 book Seeds, seeds travel well, and they are durable. Seeds transported across the world – whether by natural forces such as winds or by travelling humans – have enabled people to eat a far more diverse diet than would otherwise have been possible. And unlike most other foods, seed can last almost indefinitely before it is used. As Hanson writes ‘without dormancy, farmers and gardeners couldn’t save seed for future plantings; nor would grains or legumes or nuts last so long stored in our cupboards and pantries. We take it for granted, but if seeds couldn’t lie around for months or years on end, our entire food production system would be a folly’.
In modern times, seeds have become a battleground. Heirloom seed savers fight to keep seeds part of the commons; biologists and conservationists fill seed banks with the world’s plant diversity to safeguard against catastrophe; transnational food companies develop and patent seed varieties, bred for pest resistance, high yields, and a reliance on the infrastructure of industrial agriculture. The outcomes of these battles are not only political and economic, but also gastronomic.
For our 2018 Symposium, we invite imaginative papers that think about seeds in the broadest sense.
You might consider the many cuisines of seeds, from the sesame sweets of the eastern Mediterranean to the myriad dals of India. Pulses (legumes), nuts, and grains are all seeds, while seed oils (from soya beans, sesame seeds, mustard seed, grape seeds, and more) have become one of the most consumed sources of calories in the world. Seeds also have a rich symbolism, from the pomegranate seeds of Persephone in Greek myth to the parable of the sower in the New Testament. And in many cultures seeds are used to celebrate birth, marriage, death, the coming of the new year, and more.
Other papers might look at the complex relationship between seeds and the lives of the plants that bear them. You might wish to research ancient plant varieties or modern hybrids, seeded grapes or seedless watermelons, seed sharing or seed monopolies. Seed ownership has become a question of social justice, with reports of farmers facing jail if they seed-save after a harvest as was always the tradition in the past. How do seeds change when they become an object of intellectual property rights?
Another possible avenue is to look at the ways in which seeds have either broadened or narrowed the diversity of our diets. We would also welcome papers on the particularity of certain food seeds, from the bitter almond flavour of an apricot pit to the variations in the taste of different rice varieties.
Whatever else seeds may be, they are always a kind of miracle and we look forward to exploring this rich subject with you in 2018.
The 2019 topic will be ‘Food and Power’.
The 2020 topic will be ‘Herbs, Spices and Health’.
Friday evening lecture ‘Saving the past’: Dr. Elinor Bremen will deliver the Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture. As Conservation Partnership Co-ordinator at the Millennium Seed Bank, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Dr. Bremen manages seed conservation projects across Europe, the Middle East and Australia, helping to conserve endangered, endemic and useful plants from these regions. Since Kew has long been at the forefront of plant-conservation, we’re delighted Dr. Bremen will be starting the ball rolling.
Saturday plenary ‘Conserving the present’: Dr. Åsmund Asdal, biologist and agronomist, works at the Nordic Genetic Resource Center as co-ordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Dr Asdal facilitates seed deposits in the SGSV from the international community of gene banks and research institutes holding seed collections of plant genetic resources, and is responsible for information and media visits to the Vault. Attention was focussed on the vault’s vulnerability in May last year with the flooding of the entry-tunnel triggered by permafrost-melt, result of unusually high Arctic temperatures. This event, while no disaster ensued, highlights the vulnerability of this precious storecupboard.
Sunday morning plenary ‘Looking to the future’: Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology & Ecology of Plants, Tel Aviv University, will explain the meaning of – and aims behind – his groundbreaking work on mapping the wheat genome, a subject that involves us all. The laboratory whose work he oversees is focused on improving the yield and quality of crop plants, especially wheat, through an integrated system-approach that combines physiological, genetic, genomic and transgenic tools with the aim of reducing the gap between phenotype and genotype through a combination of laboratory and field experiments.
Sunday afternoon plenary ‘Summing it up’: all-rounder Dr. Stephen Jones, Director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, has a PhD in Genetics from the University of California at Davis and teaches graduate courses in advanced classical genetics as well as the history and ethics of genetics. As a field-to-table farmer, his first wheat-crop was grown and harvested on five acres in 1977. Together with his graduate students he breeds wheat and other grains to be grown on small farms in the coastal West, the upper Northeast and other regions of the US. The Bread Lab itself is a combination of think-tank and baking-laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavour, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley and beans.
Friday dinner: author and chef Olia Hercules prepares an Ukrainain family-style feast based on her own recipes from Mamushka(home-cooking in Ukraine, Olia’s home-territory) with digressions into Kaukasis (home-cooking with relatives and friends in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan). Expect gorgeous grainy things with herb sauces, spicy slow-cooked meats and salt-cured pickles from a brilliant young writer whose groundbreaking cookbooks have opened up a whole new culinary experience.
Saturday lunch: Culinary historian and food-and-travel writer Naomi Duguid (Flatbreads & Flavours, Taste of Persia, Burma) proposes an edible education in seedy flatbreads, pulses, dips and rice-dishes. Anticipate deliciously unfamiliar combinations of spices, herbs, pulses and grains in a communal meal of the kind you might hope to find somewhere along the Silk Road.
Saturday dinner: take your place at St. Catz’ long communal tables for a biblical banquet supervised by Moshe Basson, culinary scholar and chef-patron of Restaurant Eucalyptus in Jerusalem. Born in Iraq – just nine months old when his family arrived in Israel – Chef Basson is a founding father of the international movement Chefs for Peace and as the world authority on Old Testament food-plants his menus in Jerusalem include all seven of the species mentioned in the Bible: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, date-honey.
Sunday Lunch: Borough Market and Trustee David Matchett will be working with scientist and farmer Abi Aspen Glencross and cook Sadhbh Moore – part of an agricultural collective that runs a roving supper-club, The Sustainable Food Story – to apply nose-to-tail-eating to a menu that follows a single plant-species from root to stalk to blossom to pod and back again to seed. Abi is a farmer/baker/botanical explorer and founder of Future Farm Lab, while Sadhbh is an environmentalist who chefs at The Skip Garden in King’s Cross, London. Both are committed to the no-waste, ecologically-responsible, field-to-table way of eating that – it goes without saying – tastes as good as it looks. Expect surprises.