Wrapped and Stuffed at Oxford

Meryle Evans / September 2012

Oxford, England—Saddle of lamb Wellington, Thüringer bratwurst, and zucchini stuffed with smoked green wheat were among the diverse—and delectable—dishes on the menus at the 31st annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. Over 175 global culinary enthusiasts—anthropologists, historians, scientists, journalists, and gastronomic gadflies—convened in July for a convivial weekend of in-depth discussions and exceptional meals linked to the theme: “Wrapped and Stuffed Foods.”

The venerable, but never stodgy, symposium, held at the university’s St. Catherine’s College, opened with a keynote address by David Thompson, chef/owner of London’s esteemed Thai restaurant, Nahm, who analyzed the religious symbolism of ceremonial food in Thai temples. Then, during two days of nonstop presentations, participants listened to erudite papers on subjects ranging from “Samuel Pepys’ Venison Pasties” to “Lasagna: A Layered History,” watched videos of wrapping and stuffing techniques around the world, and sampled specialties like haggis and earthy bog butter. The latter was brought to the conference by Ben Reade, research chef at the Nordic Food Lab, who explained that historically, when butter was a scarce commodity, it was preserved for years—even centuries—wrapped in moss and buried in peat bogs.

Australian sociology professor Barbara Santich spoke about the aboriginal use of paper bark as a container to cook food, while chef/food writer Jin Kyung Kim focused on the Korean enthusiasm for foods wrapped in everything from lotus leaves to fish skin.

Thanks to a contribution from The Julia Child Foundation, the proceedings of the symposium were recorded and will soon be available as podcasts. Another new feature, the Young Chef Grant, provided by Friends of the Oxford Symposium, offers the winner of an essay contest the opportunity to attend the symposium. Kudos to the first recipient, Lucas Weir, sous chef at McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, who not only came to Oxford but also worked in the kitchen at St. Catherine’s with Rowley Leigh of London’s Le Café Anglais, and the college’s resident chef, Tim Kelsey, who prepared Friday night’s dinner. In addition to lamb Wellington, their menu included Scottish langoustines and haddock in phyllo pastry and a sumptuous summer pudding overflowing with fresh berries.

Equally enticing was a Saturday lunch of artisanal German wursts and a Turkish wine and dolma dinner. The perpetually stuffed symposiasts rallied on Sunday for a sandwich lunch extravaganza, and, before heading home, voted to select next year’s topic: “Food & Material Culture.”