2012 OXFORD SYMPOSIUM ON FOOD AND COOKERY: (2) Summer Pudding, Sausages, and Mummies

‘Stuffed and Wrapped Foods’ was this year’s theme and it started on Friday afternoon with a flashy video created by Joe Wheaton, and the evening concluded with a truly “splendid dinner, wrapped up by Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais, assisted by St. Catz’s own chef Tim Kelsey and his team.  The menu consisted of Scottish langoustines and haddock wrapped in filo pastry, a magnificent saddle of lamb Wellington, and enough Summer Pudding to compensate for the lack of summer proper, ” Hale writes.



To me this summer pudding was a revelation! I had heard about it but never tasted one before. I tend to associate puddings with heavy, buttery concoctions and I was so startled biting into this wonderfully fruity, slightly acidic, so well-balanced dessert! As is the case for all ingeniously simple recipes, the trick lays in the ratio and quality of bread and the way it absorbs the juice from the red fruits. In this case the combination was perfect. I preferred this first taste of the English classic to other versions I tried in some of Oxford’s best restaurants later in the week. It became apparent that Rowley Leigh’s Summer Pudding was by far the best! Friends told me that the pudding was prepared by a talented pastry chef on Tim Kelsey’s team, the same one who prepared the sumptuous old-fashioned Lemon Curd Swiss Roll for the Sunday Lunch.

Saturday’s sessions started with a compelling video assembled and commented on by Anissa Helou and Jane Levi, which ” introduced us to a whole world of wrapping and stuffing techniques from the Cornish pastry to the international dumpling in all its forms from Brazil, Rumania, Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Japan, China, and throughout the Middle East—a demonstration of astonishing manual dexterity (not least by the beautiful hands of Anissa’s mother),” as Hale points out. We had all been asked to contribute, and my Bacala and Rice Stuffed Chard Leaves was included in the mix. Jane and Anissa promised that the video will soon be posted on the web, and we can’t wait to see it again.

Laura Shapiro – a friend from way back when we used to meet at the Oldways Mediterranean Diet conferences in the ’90s – delivered a fascinating paper tracing the evolution of Pillsbury’s Bake-Off contests. With vivid details and anecdotes she described how the winning recipes, following changing, and I think it is fair to say deteriorating, US home cooking trends, abandoned savory and sweet dishes baked using a cook’s flair and the firm’s flour; the winners are now cooks who manage to incorporate ready-made dough and other pre-packaged ingredients to create gimmicky fabrications like the magical disappearing marshmallow crescent puffs.

Professor Harry West “presided over our first Plenary Discussion Session along with his invited participants Emma-Jayne Abbotts, Ben Coles, and Michael Goodman.  We started deep underground in the Dordogne (I think), unwrapping cheeses from their coating of mold chez the affineur, progressed to the politics of goose stuffing (it’s OK), considered the Chicken Kiev, and finally were invited to think on the four P’s of eating: Place, Production, Pleasure, and Power,” writes Roger Hale.

Saturday lunch was a ‘Sausage Feast’ created by Ursula Heinzelmann. This was another extremely pleasant surprise for me: The three wursts from well-researched artisanal producers were superb, as was the sauerkraut – made with pointed Tilde cabbages – and the refreshing radish salad. A variety of breads, baked by a German bakery in Richmond, plus mustards and spicy horseradish relish were delicious accompaniments, as was the Distel Spezial beer, which I enjoyed immensely! Ursula’s Mohnschnecken (poppy-seed ‘snail’ cookies) were another revelation, and I intend to use her recipe and bake them soon.

As Roger writes, ” after lunch the world of the real came into question once again when Len Fisher and Janet Clarkson demonstrated the brutal business of Mummy Eating.  Mummy Len, rising from his casing behind the podium, submitted a hand for ‘pulverizing’ by Alchemist Janet and then we all had a chance to taste a sample of this bituminous medication, popular until as late as the end of the 19thcentury.” Janet’s paper was one of the few I had read as soon as it was posted on the Symposium’s website. I was very intrigued, as I had no idea mumnia was such a widespread practice, and her slide with the modern Italian ‘mumnia birra’ really startled me.

“Yes to Polenta, No to couscous”

Zachary Nowak in his “Italian Stuffed vs. Maghreb Wrapped: Perugia’s Torta al Testo against the Kebab,” dealt with Italian fears of an invasion by foreign customs brought by immigrants, “that has led to cultural reactionism; among its various expressions are moves towards reinforcing ‘traditional cuisine’. The most extreme examples are laws proscribing ‘foreign food’ {like the kebab} and prescribing traditional dishes,” like the flat bread torta al testo, “as the avatar of traditional Umbrian cucina povera (peasant fare),” Nowak said. I didn’t know that the absence of ethnic restaurants in most Italian towns is enforced by local and municipal laws; I thought it was the result of a never ending affection for the regional food!

As Roger Hale reports “our Turkish supper from Gaziantep, organized by Anissa Helou and Aylin Tan with the collaboration of Gaziantep’s Chamber of Commerce, was delicious and copious.  It was preceded by Turkish wines and appetizers of folded börek, small spiced-walnut-spread rolls, and fried cheese rolls.  The wines were Buzbağ Narice – Emir 2011, a dry white, and Terra Kalecik Karası Rosé 2011.  Kayra Wines supplied a dry red, Buzbağ Reserv Őküzgőzü – Boğazkere 2007, a Terra Kalecik Karası 2011, and a second dry white from central Anatolia, Terra Narice 2011, to accompany the entrées. Our Turkish coffee was helped along with a sweet, fortified wine from Diyarbakır called Kayra Madre Őküzgőzü – Boğazkere 2006.” After the coffee we each got a lovely little pouch that held muska, a most unusual delicacy consisting of a filo-like dehydrated grape-must sheet that enclosed a stuffing of intensely-flavored Gaziantep pistachios. We also got Aylin Tan’s beautifully photographed book of recipes from this inspiring region of southeastern
Turkey, as well as an ingenious local tool for hollowing even the most delicate vegetables.

Paperbark and Sandwiches

During Sunday morning’s plenary session Barbara Santich’s paper, ‘Wrapping, Cooking, Civilizing,’ described Australian Aborigines’ simple yet effective ways of cooking fish wrapped in paperbark. Their cooking, considered primitive and uncivilized by the early European settlers, was in many ways very sophisticated, she said. She brought a piece of paperbark for us to see and to feel its texture, and told us that she experimented with this natural wrapping bark roasting fish in her gas stove; the result was a very tasty, slightly smoky fish, she said.

Lunch on Sunday was The Symposium “Trustees choice of Sandwiches,” organized by Susan Haddleston and prepared in St. Catz’ kitchen by Tim Kelsey and his team. Among the amazing array of tiny stuffed breads were Cathy’s Great Depression Banana and Onion Sandwich, Elisabeth’s Pan Bagnat, a deconstructed Coronation Chicken on lettuce leaves and lots more. Maria Jose Sevilla brought from Spain a wonderful aged Iberico Jamon Pata Negra and an expert carver, who tirelessly cut paper-thin slices of this heavenly delicacy for the patiently awaiting symposiasts.

During the last parallel sessions I delivered my paper on ‘The Most Frugal Pie, or How to Feed a Crowd with a Handful of Meat,” describing mesnik, an Albanian New Year’s pie – a kind of ‘meat baklava’ – with crumbled pre-baked filo sheets, dried goat’s meat, and its broth, scented with mint, oregano, and onions.

Artist Bobby Baker set out to lead us ‘From Prejudice to Enlightenment in Five Stages,’ in her amusing ‘Lemon Lips’ performance at the last plenary session. She gave us a tray with five different morsels: starting with lemon (lime wash), progressing to ‘cheap cherry,’ then to ‘nice nuts,’ to ‘oh crumbs,’ and concluding with a grape.

The conference ended with the familiar discussion about the symposium’s theme for 2015. It had to be a non-specific subject, as abstract ideas – like last year’s ‘Celebrations‘ –alternate yearly with specific food subjects – like ‘stuffed and wrapped’. The upcoming 2013 Symposium is about ‘Material Culture’ – and we are awaiting further guidance from the organizers on what it is supposed to include. In 2014 we will have ‘Markets,’ so we had to come up with another broad/abstract theme. After two tie votes between ‘Food in Hard Times” and “Food and Communication,” the latter won.

SEE also the pre-conference MAD HATTER’S Tea Party
Read Roger Hale’s full account
of the Symposium


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