This July I returned to the annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Wine at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.  The conference is academic in nature and the theme for 2018 was on “Seeds” I am neither gardener nor farmer and the topic was not my forte.  So naturally, my interest turned to the food!  The Symposium is well-known for its intellectual meals served banquet-style in the dining hall of St. Catz, as it’s called.  The whole college complex is a modernist historic landmark designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen.

Menus were dedicated to the Seeds theme, quite a challenge but met with great skill and imagination.  One lunch was flat breads, beautifully cooked by St Catz’s Head Chef Tim Kelsey, the menu Caravanserai Flatbread Lunch. The second dinner was devised by The Eucalyptus Tree Chef Moshe Bassoon who had travelled from Jersualem to present the meal, the menu Biblical Banquet Seeds of Peace,

Cavanserai Flatbread Lunch devised by Naomi Duguid, cooked by Tim Kelsey & St. Catz Staf

At the last lunch, there was a fantastic array of specialty breads: rye, spelt, corn, barley, einkorn, all sustainably sourced from the local bakeries, the menu Borough Market, The Sustainable Food Story Soup-er seeded. The desserts were inventive: spiced poached rhubarb, sheep’s milk custard, sorrel meringues, toasted buckwheat crumbs, and coconut milk rice pudding with berries.  Salads presented the diversity of the chicory family, demonstrated by its many fantastically named varieties: blue dairy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffee weed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive.  Pick your favorite.

The Symposium was full to the brim, showing its continued popularity more than three decades on.  Lectures I attended focused on grains, primarily the origins and manipulations of historic versions of modern wheat, whether it be how Mexico and Pakistan use the same wheat seed or tracing the origins of wild emmer wheat in Israel/Palestine in a captivating lecture by Dr Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University.

Elizabeth Hoover & Sean Sherman’s lecture on the movement to re-establish Native American indigenous food culture. She’s a Brown University professor and he’s the Sioux Chef.

Other fascinating lectures included Myriam Melchoir’s talk on the history of maize in Brazil and David Sutton’s talk on Amaranth, the bushy purple plant that popped up all over my mother’s garden, in the wilds of Yorkshire, thanks to her love of exotic plants.   Anny Gaul gave a fascinating lecture on the seed fenugreek, most commonly used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.  I’d only known it in curry mixes but her talk was how prosperity led Moroccan middle-class home cooks to shun fenugreek’s pungent aroma to the extent that it disappeared from all but rural home cooking and is now being re-discovered as an authentic flavor of North Africa.

I’ve already marked next year on my calendar where the subject sounds a challenge: “Food and Power”, we all learn that in the nursery.  Many, many thanks to all who were involved with the organization of this event, and I thoroughly look forward to next year.  For more information about the Symposium click here.