The theme of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery for 2017 was “Landscape.” From Friday July 7 to Sunday July 9, 270 chefs, food producers, journalists, scholars, and general foodies gathered to discuss (and taste) the relationship between food and landscape.
There were many interpretations of what a landscape is and how humans interact with their landscapes to get certain foods. The thread of nostalgia for lost or disappearing food landscapes emerged early in the conference thanks to plenary talks by writers Catherine Brown and Colin Tudge. Brown recounted sharing meals of tender mutton with aging crofters in desolate regions of northern Scotland in the 1970s and thinking that their recipes and ways of cooking would be lost with their generation. The next generation was drawn away from the land to more lucrative and comfortable urban livelihoods. On Saturday, talks about shepherding in the Lake District (James Rebanks) and the food traditions of Catalonia (Claudia Rodin) pursued the theme of urbanization and the decline of family-run farms from the 1970s to today.
Many of these nostalgic views on food landscape were accompanied with hope that a small farm renaissance is on the horizon. Rebanks (himself a shepherd) and Brown pointed to young people who are turning back to the farms that their parents abandoned to earn less money, but live according to their values.
Joshna Maharaj is a young chef working to return whole foods to institutional settings such as hospitals and universities in the urban landscape of Toronto. Maharaj shared ironical, yet revealing, anecdotes about counterproductive hospital dietary regulations that left her arguing that the stem of a strawberry was not a choking hazard and other such battles for bringing truly healing food to sick people.
Revitalization of food landscapes was also tasted throughout the weekend. First, at the Boyne Valley Banquet on Friday night, which was sponsored by the Irish tourist board and presented a cow carcass twelve ways. This meal highlighted Ireland’s “Ancient East,” a region northeast of Dublin that has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its branding as a gastronomic destination. During this feast, I had the pleasure of being regaled with stories and jokes by the chef’s brother, Ronan, who had driven the meat and other local delicacies from Ireland with his brother. He shared one story about being waved through the immigration checkpoint when he mentioned that his destination was the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore avoided having to open the doors of a van crammed with raw animal parts.
Ronan’s story brought to mind how political borders influence the mobility of food and made me reflect on how different this drive might be once Brexit takes effect. Brexit was clearly on the minds of other symposiasts as well: Reblack saw that there might be a silver lining in last year’s vote to leave the E.U., as Britons might now take stock of their food policies and enact regulation to support small farmers. Olivia Potts gave a fascinating retrospective on how European Economic Community legislation has affected farming, food pricing, and surpluses. Potts articulated how the E.E.C. legislators responded to outcries from farmers and consumers in adapting and reforming food legislation in the last decades.
The Saturday night dinner poignantly expressed how people could be linked by a shared food landscape even when divided by a political boundary. The meal consisted of food and drinks from the Turkish and Armenian borderlands. Gamze Íneceli screened a short film of the mountainous wine region that included the parts of Armenia and Turkey that supplied our wine for the evening.
While some of the explorations of the theme were poignant, others were more playful, such as the talk about rice paddy art tourism in Japan by Voltaire Chan and the Urban Landscape created for Saturday’s lunch with microgreens growing on the long banqueting tables.
The most startling take on the theme came from Nicola Twilley’s Sunday morning’s plenary in which she introduced the concept of “aerior.” She described her project to harvest the taste of particular atmospheres. Egg foam is reportedly 90% air. This factoid inspired a seemingly light-hearted art piece in which meringues were whipped in a sealed “smog chamber” so that people could literally compare the tastes of the airs of different places. Twilley has been asked by meringue tasters, “is it safe to eat?” To which she responds, “well, is it safe to breathe?”
Although humans are not the only species to shape food landscapes (Joshua Evans brought up the tireless work of microbes), there was an undercurrent at the symposium of our environmental responsibilities as we develop our food cultures. As Colin Tudge emphasized in his talk, “The Nature of the Task,” ever-increasing production is not the goal of enlightened agriculture, rather the goals are kindness and quality.