A Glorious V-Symposium

From all over the globe and with no need to travel –confinement not permitting—people had the chance to share many of the marvelous Oxford Symposium experiences from their homes…


I was quite ambivalent when, early Mars, the organizers decided to make the Oxford Symposium virtual. Let us wait, I said, hopefully things will be better by July… As we all know, of course, I was foolishly optimistic and fortunately the wise Symposium team decided in time to undertake the huge task to make everything happen online. They worked tirelessly, until the day of the opening events, and the result was –and still is, as it officially ends August 2– fascinating!

I was so sorry to have to cancel my much-anticipated annual trip to Oxford to meet friends from all over the world, listen to stimulating papers, and share fabulous meals at St Katz College’s stylish dining room. I even had bought my BA ticket to London last January –now it is ‘floating’ and with any luck I will be able to use it next year(!).


It all begun with an emotional greeting by Claudia Roden, the Symposium’s president, who emerged radiant speaking from her garden in London.


Throughout the July 10-12 weekend the plethora of video paper presentations and the Zoom meetings followed the relentless full-day schedule of several parallel sessions, much like the actual concurrent presentations at St Katz’s.


The keynote was given by professor Charles Spence who spoke about Gastrophysics and his experiments on the combination of sound and taste, among other things. Then each one chose to listen to some of the many excellent papers, but we also had the chance to chat, if briefly, with other participants during the virtual ‘coffee breaks.’


The weeks that followed the initial Symposium weekend we attended the speakers’ stimulating Q and A sessions, after having the chance to watch and listen, at our own pace, to every single one of the presentations and prepare for the hourly Zoom sessions of every group of papers, as they were inventively divided in sub-themes by Cathy Kaufman.


Among them:

  • Pharmacopoeia, included a fascinating paper by Joshua Lovinger on the uplifting properties of saffron and its uses during the Šavu‘ot according to 14th c. Hebrew florilegia from Provence.
  • Colonialism finally answered my annatto question, the elusive spice/coloring that I bought, but have never used. Janet Beizer spoke about ‘Traveling with a Hairy Heart, or Where Cooking with Annatto Can Take You”
  • Pot-pourri which described cooking and baking with cannabis.
  • Medieval texts, where William Weaver spoke, and showed wonderful recreations of dishes with “Herbs and Spices in the Court Cuisine of Medieval Cyprus: Food in the Cyprio-Gallic Style.”
  • Chilis on the world table where  Kelly Sharp in her brilliant, timely paper  “‘I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,’ The Diasporic Roots of Hot Sauce in Black American Culinary Culture.” Sharp explained that the hot chilies begun basically as a necessary spice to mask the rotten meat scraps fed to slaves. From Tokyo, Voltaire Cang talked about the unusual spice blend “Shichimi: The Spice, its Trade, and Centuries of Food Business Survival in Japan,” which I am dying to taste.
  • Changing British Cuisine concluded with an intriguing paper by Yale Professor Paul Freedman about “The Savory Course at Oxford and Cambridge Colleges,” referring to ‘a small piquant dish coming after the sweet but before the dessert, a uniquely British idea.’
  • Contemporary Issues included ‘The Geopolitics of Saffron and the Puzzles of Saffron Arithmetic,” by Symposium trustee Richard Shepro, who tried to explain the enormous quantities of the precious spice Spain exports, while the indisputable bulk production of saffron comes from Iran (!)
  • In The Cuisines of India Sharmila Vaidyanathan finally answered my question about the use of a somewhat foul smelling/tasting spice; in “The Curious Case of Asafoetida.” She explained that ‘in strict vegetarian South Indian Brahmin communities […] asafoetida served as an alternative for aphrodisiacs like onion and garlic.’
  • Flavours of Antiquity and beyond included “Food for the Soul: The Rabbis’ Cinnamon” by Susan Weingarten; also “Pound pepper and lovage: The Use of Spices in the Apician Recipe Text,” by Sally Grainger, as well as  “Pepper and Paradox in the Roman Imagination, by “Jeremy A. Simmons
  • In Perceptions of Heat Gerald Zhang-Schmidt, speaking from his greenhouse, gave a fascinating talk about the varieties of Chinese chilies. Even I, although not really interested in the subject, enjoyed it enormously, especially as it was enriched with Fuchsia Dunlop‘s vast knowledge during the later Q & A session.

* * *

At last I found the time to follow the most educating Wikipedia training session with Roberta Wedge, which is offered every year before the Symposium, at the British Library. But I never happened to be in London then. Now I gained the confidence needed, and having already registered as instructed, I plan to check, edit, and maybe add some entries and/or photos to this marvelous, ever evolving online encyclopedia.


Another fascinating database, Barbara Wheaton’s The Shifter, is almost ready for the serious researchers to delve into. The demo we followed was extremely impressive!


Elisabeth Luard, a longtime Symposium chair –with a flower in her hair or wearing a fabulous hat– contributed the most interesting comments and questions to the presenters. She also created the beautiful watercolors that Jake Tilson used in the booklet/menu card for David Tanis’ lunch (see below).


From Berlin, Ursula Heinzelmann,  the Symposium director,  picked and chose with an iron hand the questions from an often long list in the chat, then  funneled them to the various distinguished scholars who chaired the Q & A sessions.



The closing keynote talk by Harold McGee “A nose dive into plant aromas’ was a revelation! Harold, one of the Symposium’s trustees, showed us the huge Vanilla plant he grows in his living room in southern California.

Talking about the many curious habits and properties of the aromatic plants, he mentioned that wild thyme often performs some sort of birth control trying not to proliferate in precarious, rocky and confined spaces. The extra difficult growing conditions make the most aromatic plants, he said. We cannot wait to read his upcoming book on the subject which will be published next year.


The Meals


Unfortunately we couldn’t taste the inspiring meals and the wines listed for this year’s Herbs and Spices theme, but we had the chance to partake in sumptuous and thought-provoking virtual lunches and dinners: Among them, the brilliant David Tanis chose to highlight “One Good Spice: the Pleasures of a Single Fragrance,” working together with Jill Norman. ‘Though there are myriad age-old spice blends used in countless traditional cuisines, sometimes it is pleasant and illuminating to concentrate on one individual spice. Each of the dishes in this menu illustrates the gist of this idea by bringing out their unique flavors,’ they wrote. The menu Tanis proposed included: Chilled Melon and Coriander Soup, Courgette (zucchini) pancakes, Roasted lamb with Crushed Black Pepper (lots of it), Onion Flatbreads with Toasted Cumin Butter, Cardamom Custard with berries, Ginger Biscuits, and Saffron Tea!



The first night’s dinner ‘Pragmatism in an Impractical Place: the Stubborn Cuisine of the Fogo Island,’ was a follow up of last year’s closing talk by Zita Cobb that had left us all wanting more; so this time she brought chefs Timothy Charles and Jonathan Gushue to plan an unusual dinner.

For Saturday Asma Khan proposed “A Spice Odyssey: Home in the Royal Courts of India.’ I don’t know much about Indian cooking but following her accompanying video, I was fascinated by her way of rolling paratha so that she created a multi-layered, crunchy flatbread. I plan to duplicated her technique with our phyllo pastry –substituting olive oil for her ghee.



One of the highlights of the Symposium was undoubtedly Sri Owen, a beloved long time participant since the first years when we used to meet at  St Antony’s college with founders Alan Davidson  and Theodore Zeldin. The short film ‘My Life in a Recipe,’ by Janice Gabriel, follows Sri as she prepares Beef Rendang, her signature dish, in her home kitchen. Rendang is an extremely interesting way of cooking meat –beef, chicken, or any other kind, as Sri explained. The meat starts cooking in a soupy coconut milk broth until the milky liquid evaporates, and the meat ends up ‘frying’ in coconut fat!

* * *

I am sure I speak for all of us who participated in the  v-symposium in expressing our gratitude to trustee David Matchett and all the others who worked seamlessly behind the scenes and made sure the complicated Zoom session run smoothly.



The multi-talented Jake Tilson once more designed  the most exquisite menus –collectors’ items.

But of course we could not get the beautiful hard copies of his cards  as we usually do. Instead he sent us high resolution pdfs of the various designs.



Maybe others are handier with their printers but, unfortunately, I could not manage to make a decent printout although I tried several times…







3 thoughts on “A Glorious V-Symposium

  1. I totally agree – it has been an inspirational event and although I have only been to one before in 2017 , have gained so much by being able to look back over presentations and participate in the comments streams . Thank you also for this excellent summary of what has been going on.

    I am sure that some of these virtual elements will hopefully be retained in next year’s in real life event in Oxford.

    Many thanks

    Sue – Cambridge, UK

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