Sunday, 24 July 2011

In Bruges

Last year I saw the film In Bruges which made me think it was time to revisit.  We were there first back in the early 1970's and visited again in the mid 1990's but some of the scenes from the film made me think it would be worth returning for a short break.  We have used a company called Riviera Travel for continental breaks several times and they offered a four day short holiday which ticked all the boxes so I booked for July thinking the weather would be about right for us.  Luckily we have the philosophy "there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing" so were undaunted by the constant rain and drizzle.  We had waterproofs, brollies and watertight footwear which we made good use of.  The linen slacks and sandals remained unused.

Day One saw us catching the early train down to London in order to connect with the Eurostar.  This is the first time we have gone from St Pancras, all our former dealings with Eurostar have been via Waterloo.  St Pancras is like a mini shopping mall and we spent an interesting hour sorting out provisions for the journey.  The Marks Simply Food is much cheaper than onboard food and the choice much better.  We had an uneventful trip to Lille where we were met by a coach and the Riviera Travel courier Max.  Max was already known to us, he took us through Andalusia a few years ago and was incredibly good when I got a touch of Spanish Tummy in the middle of the night.  He is a former language teacher with a love of history and absolutely brilliant at his job.  Nothing ever fazes him, all requests are dealt with efficiently and courteously and he is an absolute mine of information.

Our hotel in Bruges was right by The Belfort - the carillions rang regularly but stopped at around ten each evening and did not start again until around eight the following morning so our sleep was undisturbed.  The hotel was excellent, a shade better than Novotel standards with extremely comfortable beds and really good power showers.  There was even a minifridge in the bathroom which was rapidly filled with gin and tonic water.  Martin's Brugge was the name, one of a chain owned by a chap called John Martin who went to Belgium from England to learn the brewing trade, stayed and built a hotel empire.  The hotel only served breakfast but the breakfasts were banquets.  A cold table of fruits and yoghurts, another cold table with cheeses and cold meats, a table with French pastries (fantastic croissants), a hotplate with bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans and tomatoes and a further bar with a dozen different cereals.  There was a dispensing machine (with half pint glasses) for grapefruit, orange, tropical and apple juices and a coffee machine.  A Dualit toaster proved to be enough for everyone  and I never had to wait to put my toast on. 

On the first afternoon we went for a bit of a mooch around, admiring the stepped gables, the cobbled streets and the general ambience.  We went out for supper and had some deep fried cheese croquettes as a starter, mussels and chips for a main course and a creme caramel for pudding.  With a glass of wine and a bottle of sparkling water it came to seventy four Euros - Bruges is hideously expensive and the practical parity with the pound does not help either.  The food was OK, but nothing special and the service was absolutely dire.

Day two found us ready to go off on a walking tour at 9am - having breakfasted like kings.  One of the things I really rate about Riviera is that they do important things early in the day when it is quieter and the customers get a much better experience.  I remember being at The Alhambra as it opened and having a wonderful peaceful tour - by the time we left it was noisy and full of people.  Anyway, back to the walking tour of Bruges with Max.  It took about two hours and was a very leisurely stroll around (as befits old people like us) starting in the market place, going to the Burg and seeing all the municipal buildings and statues and being given lots of information.  It was actually 21st July which is Independence Day in Belgium so all the flags were flying, and they have lots of flags.  We went to the two major churches and walked through the fishmarket (now full of "craft" stalls) and saw the wonderful old stone slabs and waterways.  There was a brewery tour arranged for 11.30 but we bowed out, Max warned us that there were a lot of steps and Onslow has dodgy knees so caution was the order of the day so that we would enjoy the rest of the holiday.  We walked slowly back to our hotel and went into the bar and ordered a coffee and a hot chocolate to warm up (the rain was bouncing by this time) and what a chocolate it was.  A large glass mug filled with steaming hot milk with a wooden stick with a chunk of chocolate a good inch cube on the end.  I put the chocolate in the milk and stirred holding on to the stick and the chocolate melted making a dense, rich drink.  Quite the nicest hot chocolate I can remember, and I have had a lot of hot chocolate in my time.

We then went off on our own going down back alleys and side streets - uncovering treasures every step of the way.  Bruges is not big enough to get lost in and the three high buildings, two churches and The Belfort, enable you to find your bearings very easily.  We found a military chapel which had the rolls of honour from both World Wars inscribed on slabs of marble on the outside and an amazing pulpit which was "liberated" from somewhere in Antwerp.  We found a bike hire shop which had metal sheets in the shape of working parts of bikes covering the outside, right up to the gables.  The metal had rusted so it was a bright orange house - it looked great.  We found lots of wonderful statuary, too numerous to mention but my personal favourite was Papengeo outside the theatre.  There are some very naughty four horses of the apocalypse too.  The cake and chocolate shops were amazing and I could have stood looking into the window of one particular bakers for hours. 

Bruges has a nice trade in horses and carriages and the clip clop of hooves on the cobbles was a constant background to all our wanderings.  The horses all weat a sort of leather chute attached to the leads which is neatly fixed under their rear ends, this means that the evacuations go straight into the sort of nappy it makes and the streets remain clean.  I was most impressed by the Belgian pragmatism in solving what could be a problem - someone should tell Valletta about this!  Most of the carriage drivers were female, something I have not noticed elsewhere.  They were all very smartly dressed and wore straw hats, a sort of uniform I suppose.  It seems the horses are only permitted to work two days in every seven so they do get plenty of rest between shifts. 

We went out to supper that evening and had one of the very best meals I have had in years.  Nothing nouvelle about it, just fabulous food beautifully presented and with excellent services.  We ordered the thirty euro menu and both started with prosciutto - what we got was a large ten inch plate which had a tablespoon of celeriac remoulade, a tablespoon of finely diced beetroot and a tablespoon of finely grated carrot juxtaposed in a triangular arrangement.  In one of the spaces between was a salad of thinly sliced cucumber sprinkled with dill, sweet luscious tomato slices sprinkled with chives and raw sweet onion rings.  The middle was filled with an assortment of lettuce leaves which had been made into a chiffonade with red and green strips dressed in a delicious mustardy vinaigrette and then on the top were draped four slices of prosciutto.  We were also given a basket of oat bread and some of that lovely pale continental lactic butter.   It was truly exquisite.  For mains we both ordered the steak with a pepper sauce and chips, I like my steak rare and Onslow likes his well done - we both thought our steaks absolutely perfect.  The pepper sauce was unlike any I have previously encountered, it was like a Hollandaise and rich and buttery with a couple of tablespoons of soft green peppercorns stirred in at the last minute.  The chips were long, thin, crispy and in a large bowl.  I thought the big bowl of chips and the half pint of pepper sauce in a separate bowl would be beyond us and would go back to the kitchen.  Wrong.  We ate every single scrap because it was all so gorgeous.  We faltered at the pudding choice but one of the options was Irish coffee so we went for that.  It was one of those perfect meals, eaten out of doors (it stopped raining in the evenings) to the clip clop of hooves and just thoroughly enjoyed.  We had a half litre of rose wine and a beer and the total cost was seventy six Euros - an absolute bargain.  Two Euro more than the previous night's indifferent offering.  If anyone is visiting Bruges it is highly recommended, - the restaurant is called 't Fonteintje and on the corner of Simon Stevinplein and Oude Burg.

Day three found us up and going on a boat trip at 9am.  We were the only two boats on the water at that time, obviously something negotiated by Riviera, but an hour later all the boats were out.  There are only four companies licensed to carry traffic on the canals and they each have four boats.  So at any one time there can be up to sixteen boats on the waters - no private boats are allowed.  It was lovely to see the backs of some of the properties we had seen from the street and a good way to spend an hour. 

We then went off by coach to Ypres which is atruly remarkable place.  It was razed to the ground during the First World War and totally rebuilt in the original style during the early 1920's as German reparation.  The municipal buildings and cathedral look totally authentic.  The cathedral has some wonderful modern stained glass and is well worth visiting.  We also went to the Museum of Flanders Fields which is an interactive display of how dreadful war was.  The highlight for me was the visit to The Menin Gate, something I have wanted to do for a very long time.  I cried.  We then went to a military cemetary and I cried again looking at some of the headstones and realising how young the men were.  Boys. 

We were rather tired after such a long day so went across the road on Oude Burg to a restaurant called Venice for a simple supper.  Some parma ham (not nearly as nice as the previous evening) on a plate dusted with smoked paprika (why?) followed by mussels and chips again and then chocolate mousse.  A glass of wine and a coke brought the total to forty six Euros - quite respectable but nothing special.

Saturday morning had a visit to a chocolate maker on the itinerary but since I am a world expert on Valrhona because of my previous work and Onslow has no interest we elected to not do that either.  Instead we went for a liesurely final walk around.  In the rain.

Conclusions?  Bruges is lovely, it has been restored from when I was last there - I certainly don't remember quite so many cobbles - but in a sympathetic way rather than being turned into a theme park.  It is very expensive though, about 25% more than either Brussels or Ypres in restaurants and there are no cheap street food type places.  I remember buying bags of chips with a blob of mayonnaise back in the 70's and 90's - but found no evidence of such a choice this time.  All the museums charge for entrance and the only way to get a multi ticket to see everything I wanted to was to buy a three day pass - the one day pass limits the buildings you can enter.  So I got sales resistence and went to none of them and enjoyed all the free art in the streets - of which there is plenty.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Lunch and the Afternoon

Lunch was Kathari Deftera - Clean Monday Lunch.  It was devised by Aglaia Kremezi and cooked by Tim Kelsey and the staff of Catz.  The first meal I think that does not credit other chefs on the menu.  The centrepiece of the banquet was the bread - it was amazing, not quite a flatbread but not quite a proper loaf either.  A sort of focaccia type with oregano and visible salt crystals.  Delicious.  It was more or less a mezze - we had green and black olives from various parts of Greece dressed with oregano, thyme and lemon, taramosalata (absolutely incredible, pure white and since I profess not to like taramosalata much I was amazed) and a lovely smoked herring spread called Rengosalata.   The main course was a wonderful salad made from romaine lettuce, rocket, spring onions and grilled red florina peppers dressed with a lemony olive oil sauce.  A big dish of what I think were butter beans - but might have been very pale broad beans - had been baked in a garlicky tomato sauce and were fabulous.  But for me the absolute star was the marinated octopus with potatoes.  The octopus was pure white and purple and so tender it just dissolved in my mouth, the potatoes were tiny new ones which had been boiled and quartered and then the octopus and the potatoes were dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and thyme.  How such simple ingredients could produce such amazing texture and flavour effects is totally beyond me.  I missed pudding which was halva with lemon marmalade because everything was running late and my soldier background makes me unable to turn up late for anything.  So I reported back to the lecture theatre and sat there alone and palely loitering for half an hour waiting for the rest of them to turn up.

The afternoon session began (late) with a paper by Mark McWilliams who is a professor at the United States Naval Academy specialising in food and literature.  I think that the American Navy is in safe hands.  His paper was titled  "The Unavoidable Ham Biscuit" and all about ham rolls basically.  He had brought with him what is called American Country Ham - a sort of proscuitto - and we will not enquire too closely into how it got through Customs.  He gave a long and extremely interesting talk about why keeping the trotters on is good (it keeps the fibres of the meat long and lean) when curing and how a ham can lose over 30% of its initial weight whilst being air dried.  American domestic cured ham like this is much cheaper than that we can get here - about a third of the price.  Why?  He also talked about beaten biscuits which apparently were made by slaves in the South before emancipation and the dough was bashed with a rolling pin to produce the right sort of texture.  That is one of my projects to research (about the fiftieth) as a result of attending The Symposium.

The second paper was presented by Kimberly Sorenson and the subject was "Prints Charming:19thC New York Cake Boards and New Year's Cake" which was a bit weird.  She was a young girl, very pretty and frighteningly earnest.  I felt at the end of the lecture what she had shown was Scottish Shortbread moulds which would be used to make shortbread to be taken as a gift and  presented on New Year's Day when first footing but she totally dismissed that suggestion.   Gave no credence at all to the thought that perhaps the same idea could have come from different sources (she was determined that it was a Dutch American custom and had done all her research to prove that) so I felt a bit intimidated by her insistence that I knew nothing and she knew everything.

The final paper of the afternoon was delivered by Marietta Rusinek, a Polish student of the history of food and her theme was "Cake as the Centrepiece of Celebrations: on the intrinsic continuity between cake and celebrating.  She demonstated how important cake is, from birth to grave.  I really enjoyed her slides but found her English a bit difficult to follow.  Her English is a lot better than my Polis (which is nil) so I was grateful that she was attempting to explain things. 

We all went and had a cup of tea then and returned for the summing up, another fast moving video show with loud music and the closing session to decide the theme for 2014.  Which will be markets. 

My conclusions?  A fabulous, fantastic, wonderful, awesome time.  What have I learned?  That just because people are famous and expert they can still be very nice.  And that academia uses an awful lot of colons and semi colons.  And drinks a lot.

I went home with my head spinning, exhausted, full of food and really thrilled that I had finally managed to do it. 

I do hope they let me go again.

Coffee and After

Just in case you think I have been a tad shy on the name dropping I think I ought to share my encounter with a real hero of our times.  At coffee I noticed a tall gangly chap standing alone and read his name badge - none other than Harold McGee.  Reader, I almost fainted.  I went into full gibber mode and told him that I think he is wonderful.  He looks about my age, perhaps a bit younger, so must have written On Food and Cooking when he was a child - I told him that too.  I bought my copy back in 1984 (I rather like the odd first edition and have a few) and told him it was the first really serious book I ever bought.  For someone who failed physics O Level it takes a lot to buy On Food and Cooking.  He gave me the most enormous grin and told me I had made his day.  Apparently everyone is frightened of his intellect (my words not his - he just said that people don't talk to him) and so he never gets praise from perfect strangers.  And they don't come much stranger than me in full gibber mode.  So remember this and if ever you see one of your heroes, tell them they are, you just might make their day.

I then went back to the lecture theatre for the three papers on Celebrating the Jewish Way.

The first was given by Felicity Newman who is a lecturer on feminism and cultural diversity at Murdoch University in Brisbane.  The title was "Keeping Kosher: Cause for Celebration?" and her argument was that the Kosher kitchen has both social and financial costs.  Since in the Jewish home the woman is responsible for all food production it follows that in the 21st Century when women also have careers and professions there is an increased workload for her.  She made the comment that in her experience levels of observance are increasing and that the Kosher kitchen can be isolating from the community in general.  The ordinary salaried woman who is also a housewife has the option of going out to supper or buying a takeaway after a hard day at the office, not so her Jewish sister.  There is practically no ready prepared Kosher food available to buy and very few Kosher restaurants left. 

The second paper was delivered by Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus who as well as being a professor (but I am not sure where - somewhere in America) is also a rabbi.  He showed some delightful photographs to illustrate his talk "Sukkot: The Paradigmatic Harvest Festival" and if ever I find out what paradigmatic means I am sure the lecture will make more sense.   He said that he always invites his first year students (I think that is what freshman class means) to Sukkot at his home and it looked as though they were having plenty of fun.  The symbolism of the herbs and the lemon was illustrated with a clip from a French film where a man's very expensive lemon for which he paid a small fortune is simply cut up by an uninvited guest to make a salad dressing. Very funny - but not for the chap who had bought the lemon.   Apparently Sukkot must have guests, real, imaginary, whatever.

The final lecture was called "Celebrating Purim and Passover; Food and memory in the creation of Jewish identity.   It was delivered by two people, Susan Weingarten, an Australian archaeologist and Georg Schaefer a German Doctoral student from Cologne.  I should state at this point that the lovely Georg looked about twelve and wore the only tie I saw all weekend apart from those worn by college staff.  The lecture itself made many parallels between Hellenistic and Jewish customs and I am pretty sure that Dionysus got a mention somewhere but I found both speakers very difficult to follow.

I need another little rest to marshal my thoughts but will return.

The Final Day

Sunday morning found me up and raring to go so I wandered down to breakfast and sorted out my usual yoghurt and figs and was joined by Caroline Conran.  We had a discussion about the yoghurt and decided that although we both use Total at home it is nice to consume a million calories of fat when on holiday.  Apparently she has some fig trees in her garden which actually fruit and she is going to try to preserve some this year, they never get wasted because she loves figs too.

The first bit in the lecture theatre was the award of the Raymond Blanc Scholarship.  Paul Levy gave us all M Blanc's apologies for not being there himself, apparently he is filming a new series so that is something for us all to look forward to.  The scholarship was awarded to a young female chef, but I am ashamed to admit that I did not catch her name.

The next bit was the award of the Cherwell Prize which is open to anyone under the age of 31 on the day the Symposium starts.  This was awarded to a young man called Seth Rosenbaum - remember that name, I am sure we will hear more of him.  He presented a paper linking MFK Fisher and WH Auden scholastically and I came home determined to pursue this.   I need to get hold of a poem called "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" and do a bit of work on it.

The next bit was a paper entitled "From the Greek Symposium to the Roman Orgy" given by Oswyn Murray who is a very highly regarded academic and a Fellow at Balliol.  It was an absolutely brilliant lecture with a slide show of various examples from history of how Symposia and Orgies were organised.   One fairly important point that he made was that the wine was always watered, after fermentation it would be at about 17% ABV but would be watered down with twice as much water as wine.  However, everyone would have three sessions of boozing and drink about two litres of the watered wine at each session meaning around six litres overall - still a lot of booze. I had not realised that there was so much homosexuality connected with food and drink.  The biggest difference between the Greek and Roman is that the Greeks sat up and the Romans reclined - apart from that they appear to be pretty much on a par.  When I signed up for the Oxford Symposium I was not aware that there might be an orgy - and if there was I was not invited.

We were then shown a film about Greek Clean Monday to prepare us for lunch.  Apparently Clean Monday is the Monday before Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) and a meat free day.  Greek families always eat outside at a picnic (I suspect the weather might be a little more conducive in Greece during February) and whole families get together to share their food.  Shellfish and fish are permitted but the big concentration is on the vegetables and the women become rather competitive about their legume dishes.   After the film there was a bit of discussion with Aglaia Kremezi who was responsible for the lunch. 

There is a lady called Alicia Rios who is famous in Symposia history for doing performance art involving food every year, she is, how can I put it, what the Germans would call "originale" and I would call barking.  It was her turn next and she appeared on the stage wearing a white suit and proceeded to give a performance called "Organoleptic Deconstruction in Three Movements"  I am sure that my erudite readers know exactly what that means, I don't have a clue.  The idea behind this was to experience food without actually eating or tasting any of it.  The first movement consisted of a tray set with various food items, marshmallows, strawberries, jelly, cake and other sweet items.  She proceeded to mix them all up with her hands, squidging and squashing everything together to enable us to witness what happens in the stomach.  It looked a right old mess I can tell you.  She then cleaned her hands and displayed on the screen an assortment of foods and drinks and at the same time played a recording of what the different foods and drinks sound like when being consumed.  The sound of eating corn on the cob, an apple, asparagus and crisps were distinctive but the slurping of beer or the sipping of wine were a bit more difficult.  The final item consisted of a massive (about the size of a single bed mattress) bag of crisps contained within a clear plastic covering on which she proceeded to roll around orgasmically.  Most odd.

It was now time for coffee followed by another of the parallel sessions and I elected to go to the papers entitled "Celebrating the Jewish Way" and I think this was my favourite bit of the weekend.  Mind you, when I think about it they were all my favourite bits - I just loved the whole shebang.

At this point I need a bit of a rest but will return.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Rest of Day Two

After lunch we returned (late) to the lecture rooms and the papers I chose to hear were all about banquets. 

The first was presented by Valerie Mars who is a social historian and lecturer specialising in 19th Century food and architecture.  We were shown lots of pictures of two different banquets which were held to promote the 1851 Great Exhibition, they were both held in 1950 - one in York and one in London.  The pictures were engravings rather than photographs of course but nonetheless were very interesting and showed how tables were decorated and menus made up of courses pre A La Russe service.  It must have been pretty difficult to reach the toothsome morsels placed beyond one's reach though.  There was an example of the hundred guinea dish which these days would probably be enough to buy a house.

The second paper was presented (are you lot impressed at how easily I have learned academic speak?) by Sarah A Milne but I cannot tell you anything about her because she has been omitted from my contacts list.  The paper was interesting in that the subject was "Dining with the Drapers" and it was an illustration of The Drapers Company 1564 Election Day Feast.  Elizabethan London still had some of the Sumptuary Laws in place and the clothes were almost as interesting as the food.  Almost.

The final paper was presented by Mairtin MacConIomaire, a lecturer in Culinary Arts - I think in Dublin but don't quote me on that.  His paper was entitled Royal Pomp: viceregal celebrations and hospitality in Georgian Dublin.  They certainly knew how to party in Georgian Dubluine - it was fascinating.  All the protocol observances in viceregal circles really made me glad I live in a more casual age.

We then broke for a cup of tea and I am ashamed to say that I missed the last session of the day - I plead exhaustion and all those wines at lunch.

We all assembled for the pre dinner drinks at 1830 and went in to a beautifully decorated dining room for the feast of The Mexican Day of the Dead.  Every place had a little sugar favour in the shape of a skull of some sort made by piping with brightly coloured icing on white sugar.  They looked more friendly than fearsome - it was announced that all two hundred and fifty had been made by Caroline Conran and Beth Coventry.  I have brought mine home and it is sitting proudly in front of the fruit bowl.   I bet none of the rest of you have a genuine piece of Conran art sitting there!  This dinner was cooked by Fernando de la Cruz, Sage and Tom Conran plus Tim Kelsey and the staff of Catz again.

We started with corn tortilla chips, freshly fried and still warm served with
several salsas; Roja, Green Tomatillo, Smoked Jalepeno and Guacamole.  Then a huge dish of tamales was brought (enough to have three each) - I am not sure that I like tamales, they are a sort of stodgy cornmeal batter smeared on banana leaves, some turkey put in the middle of that and then folded over before being steamed for a long time.  Rather stodgy and without the salsa inedible. 

The main course was a bit heavy on the carbohydrates and I was not awfully keen on the turkey enchiladas because the chocolate mole was a bit on the sweet side so I left most of it.  I had the tiniest spoon of the mashed and fried black beans which were sort of pink coloured by now and that was enough of that.  I did not even serve myself any rice because I was already filling up.  However, the rest of the main course was absolutely fabulous.  We had Pork Pibil which was a thickish pancake about three inches in diameter which was crispy and topped with meltingly soft pork shards which had been cooked with vinegar and then topped with slices of red onion.  There was a dish called Nopales en Salsa Verde al Gratin which was a sort of cactus which had been finely sliced and mixed with a green salsa , topped with cheese and grilled until golden.  The best part of the entire meal.  We had some other French style beans cooked with a red chili sauce which were also delicious.  There were large bowls of salad on the side which were heavy on the coriander (I adore coriander) and with a lime and oil dressing.

Pudding was the most wonderful sorbet made from hibiscus flowers served in scoops on top of fresh berries followed by coffee.

There was only one wine - a Semillon Blanc provided by Peter Lehmann but there were also bottles of ice cold Sol beer and wedges of lime on all the tables.  Loads and loads of them. 

Bruce Kraig sat next to me on the left, he is an expert on Mexican food and history and led me gently through all the dishes and quite understood the couple of things I disliked.  He was very pleased that I tried at least two mouthfuls before declaring my dislike though and pleased that I ate so much of everything else.  Sitting on my right was Susan Braithwaite who is the Chair of Slow Food UK and most interesting. 

During coffee Claudia Roden decided to go walkabout and approached us so I went into full gibber mode again (I blame the wine, again) and told her how wonderful I thought she was.  I happened to have in my handbag (as you do) a copy of The Book of Jewish Food and asked her if she would please sign it for me.  It is a first edition and when she realised that I had bought it when it came out she was really flattered and found a mistake in a recipe which she altered for me and initalled and then dedicated it to me and signed in the front.   So for the rest of the Symposium I did not have to lug around a very heavy tome.

My cup at that point had runneth over and I took myself off to bed, getting up only three times in the night to gloat over the dedication before going back to sleep for a bit.

More tomorrow

Day Two of The Symposium

Day Two began with breakfast which was available from 0745 and it was a very substantial buffet laid out in the dining room.  There was a table with large glass bowls of cereals (about twenty), different nuts, seeds and dried fruits to enable people to build their own choices and on the side were full fat, semi skimmed, skimmed and soya milks all clearly labelled.   This table also had bowls of canned figs, prunes, grapefruit sections and the thickest, creamiest yoghurt I have ever come across.   There was another table with large dispensers of grapefruit, orange and apple juices.  A third table of cold stuff had fresh fruit - watermelon, charentais, grapes, strawberries, raspberries - all piled high.  There were plates of cold meats and cheeses and a basket of mixed warm breakfast rolls.  The fourth table had a hot plate with bacon, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried eggs and black pudding keeping hot for people to help themselves.  I am a fruit and yoghurt girl myself and really have low tastes - I love the canned figs and really enjoyed them.  The waiting staff brought large pots of coffee and tea to the tables and left them there and every few minutes brought fresh toast.  Marmalade and jams were already on the tables in little dishes.  The Scandinavians really loved the cooked breakfasts and raved about them.  It is apparently always the highlight of their Symposia.

I was joined at breakfast by a fortyish Australian called Jo Curtis who works in the film world as an executive producer.  She lives half the time in Sydney and the other half in Soho and was really interesting.  She confided that she had stayed up late the previous night and at midnight was swigging pints of Guinness and smoking roll ups with a young man whose name she could not remember.  She gave up smoking twenty years ago.  Apparently.  She was eating a massive cooked breakfast to soak up some of the previous night's excesses.  We went off to the first lecture together but she only lasted half the morning and had to return to bed long before lunch.

The first paper was given by Jane Kramer who lives in New York most of the time and writes for The New Yorker.  She spends quite a lot of time in France and was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for services to gastronomy.  The theme of her paper was "Celebrating!" and two of her comments were very interesting.  She said that the preparation of food for a celebration feast becomes ritualised and that somehow it always tastes better.  That really made me think of Christmases past and despite forgetting the sausage and bacon rolls the food was delicious.  I also have my rituals but had never really thought about it before as a ritual - I just always do things the same way at the same time of year.  The cherries in brandy are made in July (note to self, buy some cherries today), the cake is made in October, the pudding on Stir Up Sunday and Christmas Eve finds me, the vegetables and the service of lessons and carols from Kings in perfect harmony.  Her second comment that really made me think was that "celebration is one of the great civilising rituals of humanity" which when you think about it is so obvious as to go without saying.  To actually hear it put into words brings it into consciousness rather than unconsciousness.

The next paper was delivered by Joelle Balhoul and was entitled "Judeo-Muslim Exchanges in Religious Celebrations" and was really interesting.  Joelle is a professor at Indiana State University and a world expert on the co-existence of Jewish and Muslim communities.  She concentrated on North Africa and we heard all about the period 1880-1970 when there was much Jewish migration of  the lower class because of persecution but the remaining higher class Jews assimilated into the Muslim communities.  Muslim women have always dominated domestically but their men would actually acquire the food, once it was given to the woman she would take over and decide what would be done with it.  Muslim women would assist their Jewish counterparts at times like Shabbat and Passover but the Jewish women remained the principals in the acquisition and ritual preparation of their food.

We then were shown a short film about the Mexican Day of The Dead and Bruce Kraig and Jan Thompson explained the rituals and the food preparation which was taking place ready for our dinner that evening.

I then went off to another room because the papers I wanted to hear were on the theme "Alone, sad and no food: Anti-Celebrations"  The other choices for the next hour and a half were "Celebration around the Mediterranean in Classical Times" and "Sweets in Celebrations".  I would have loved to go to all of them but these were called Parallel Sessions and I had to make a choice.

The first paper was given by Anthony Buccini and his theme was "The Relationship between Fasting and Feasting" and he was very knowledgeable about the medieval church and its rituals.  He is an academic at  the University of Chicago and that evening I was able to point him in the direction of those wonderful drawings at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool showing the monks feasting and fasting - he had heard of them but did not know where they were.  I felt like a proper grown up at this point, being able to give information to someone of his status does not happen to me very often.

The second paper was given by Robert Appelbaum and the subject was "Celebrating Solitude:  MFK Fisher on Dining Alone".  I am very familiar with the texts he used and understood everything he said.  Robert is presently at Lancaster University but is moving to Uppsala in Sweden this summer.
He admitted that he never "dines" alone because he finds the experience uncomfortable.  If he has to eat out alone he tends to go to Wetherspoons!

The final paper in this session was given by Jane Levi who is the Symposium's treasurer.  That really was a collection of pictures illustrating the theme "Melancholy and Mourning: Black Banquets and Funerary Feasts".  One interesting thought came from this which had certainly never occurred to me was that the funeral feast was a way of introducing the new heir to the community at large.  There was much discussion about black foods.

After this it was time to go off to lunch.  What a lunch we had too - all the food and drink were provided by different Italian regions and the theme of the lunch was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy.   The antipasti were laid out on large platters and consisted of three different sorts of olives, four different salamis, roasted peppers, aubergines and artichokes and large baskets of warm focaccia bread.    After about ten minutes large bowls of ravioli with ricotta and spinach dressed with lemon oil appeared.  We then were given huge portions of chicken cooked with rosemary and white wine.  This was followed by platters of Grana Padano accompanied by bowls of fabulously juicy cherries and dishes of cold zabaglione.   The wines were Gigliotto Nero D'Avola,  Perticato I Quadri, Perticato Valandrea amd Spumante Dolce Perini & Perini.  There was no shortage of either food or drink.  I had sat down at the far end of the room so that I could observe the entire proceedings and Paul Levy came and sat opposite me and introduced himself.  I had stopped gibbering by this time and we had quite a sensible conversation, he gave me the true stories on Elizabeth David and Anne Barr and The Foodie book. 

I shall have to return to this later since I need to dress up and go out for my birthday lunch.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery - 8-10 July 2011

I have wanted to go to this for years but have never managed to do it before so was really thrilled when I received an email advising me that I could do so this year.  My life long greed and passion for all things culinary has made me aware that this particular conference is the most important and prestigious in the entire world.  I had never really felt as though I was up to the standard required and went with no great expectations of being included in all the activities.  I thought all the serious foodie world would spot that I am a complete fraud blagging my way around the world of food in total ignorance of the real requirements to join their club.

Reader, I was so, so, wrong.

I took the train down to Oxford, it is only an hour on the train from where I live and with my senior railcard the return fare is only thirteen quid, less than the cost of the fuel and I had a suspicion that I would not need the car once there.  The train times were not exactly convenient - there is a gap from Pershore to Oxford during the week - which meant that I arrived in Oxford at 1230 but could not book in at St Catherine's College until 1500 so I nipped over to The Jam Factory near the station for a light lunch.  If anyone needs a decent simple light meal within five minutes of Oxford Station it is highly recommended - a sort of arts centre and cafe/bistro where a lovely baguette or wrap and a bowl of delicious crispy chips costs a fiver.  By Oxford standards that is excellent value.

I then went off to St Catherines (known as Catz) by taxi, a young American couple in the queue were carrying "foodie" type hessian bags so I asked if they were going to the Symposium, they were so we shared a taxi.  He turned out to be an employee of Goldman Sachs in London and she was a professor (what we call a lecturer) at Yale.  They had met at Harvard.  All this Ivy League stuff did nothing to increase my confidence, but the taxi only cost us three quid each when we split it so it was worth doing.   I walked into the Porter's Lodge to register and there before me was Elisabeth Luard who gave me a huge smile of welcome and introduced herself.  As if I did not know who she is - every single word she has ever written is on my shelves.  I started stammering and stuttering - totally star struck - and telling her that two of her books had reduced me to tears (Still Life and My Life as a Wife), that her Andalusian patatas bravas is the best in the world, that I loved her illustrations in the Waitrose magazine and that I wanted her to adopt me.  All without drawing breath.  She carried on smiling and led me across to the registration desk and handed me over to Patsy Iddison who is the Registrar and gave me my conference pack.  Complete with a name badge with my name on it, exactly the same as the one Elisabeth Luard and Patsy were wearing.  Not one with "fraud" after my name or in a different colour so the in crowd would know I was masquerading as someone who deserved to be there.   I was then led to the Porter's desk where I was allocated a room - my name was on his computer too - given a key, given a map of the campus and all the different places I needed to be were marked for me.  I went across to my allocated room and unpacked - a very simple basic room with an en-suite loo and shower.  I practically had to stand in the shower to use the washbasin, I certainly needed the shower door open in order to accommodate my substantial rear end when cleaning my teeth and bending over to rinse afterwards.

By this time it was about1630 and the first session was to be at 1700 in the form of  The Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture  by Professor Richard Wrangham in the Bernard Sunley Lecture Theatre.  Richard Wrangham is a Biological Anthropologist at Harvard.   I wandered across there clutching my orange folder (everyone else had the same colour) and sat in the middle row towards the centre and was soon joined by two women and a man, all of whom had been to previous Symposia.  One of the women was truly terrifying, if I dared to open my mouth she contradicted me but the other two were charming and backed me up.  The terrifying one was from New Zealand, the nice lady from Australia and the nice man from Canada. 

Professor Wrangham started by saying that he was delighted to be asked to give the most important lecture at the epicentre of food interest in the world and thanked the audience for deigning to listen to him because we were all more important than him.  Moi?  I don't think so but it was nice to be included in that welcome.  The lecture was given from a rostrum to the right of the stage, on the stage were sitting Paul Levy, Claudia Roden and Elisabeth Luard.   The lecture itself was absolutely fascinating and the basic theme was about the discovery of fire and the rise of cooked food throughout history.  We heard that animals seem to prefer cooked food and he demolished the Levi-Strauss theory of the 1960's saying that food should be eaten raw and was only cooked for symbolic reasons.  Apparently all animals will choose cooked over raw food and there is evidence to show that in humans a totally raw diet leads to amenorrhea in women.  He said that the human race has grown larger with an increased brain size because we learned to cook our foods and this puts us at the top of the chain.  We also have smaller digestive systems and teeth than other animals because they have adapted over the years to cope with a cooked and not a raw diet. Starch is gelatinized by cooking and protein denatured.  This means that more of the calories of cooked food are absorbed by the body.  The learned Professor also thinks the Atwater Convention (the system used to show the food values on labels) needs to be rethought since it does not take account of the extra calories the body takes in from cooked food as opposed to raw food.  We are being misled.  By this time I was seriously considering going on a raw food diet for the rest of the summer in order to lose a bit (OK then - a lot) of weight.  We were all given a handout about the Jane Grigson Trust and Library and because were all (well, all but one) obviously learned scholars invited to take advantage of the contents for our research. 

We then went on to watch a  DVD made by Barbara and Joe Wheaten on the theme of "Celebrations" which had loads of clips from paintings and stained glass windows on the subject.  This went very fast and the images were no sooner half registered on my brain than they were replaced by something else.  This was accompanied by very loud music.  I found it a bit confusing and distracting but sat quietly (yes, me) and waited for it to finish. 

We now had a half hour break before a champagne reception (Lanson) before supper so I nipped up to change from my travel clothes into a simple white tshirt and linen trousers dressed up with a bit of bling.  I had been unsure about a dress code so played safe, travelled in jeans (about half the people at the first lecture were also wearing jeans) and packed black, white and grey linen slacks and matching tshirts.  There were exactly right - smart casual was the order of the evenings. 

I went down to the Junior Common Room and was immediately accosted by Phil Iddison (a former Trustee and husband of Patsy), given a glass of champagne and chatted to for ten minutes.  It was very hot in the room so I sidled out and headed for the dining room which was much larger and airy and cooled down.  There were a couple of women sitting at the end of the first table and chatting casually so I asked if I might join them and was greeted enthusiastically and beckoned to sit down next to one of them.  They were really lovely, Virginia Hill introduced herself as an Australian food writer and Lidia Bastianich said that she had a restaurant in New York and specialised in Italian food.  We were soon joined by Julie Friedman, a retired lecturer from Wisconsin and Janine Kalowski who I think was her daughter but I might be wrong about that.  We settled down as a nice little manageable coven with the assistance of Alice Mullen whose poor husband Bob (they were from New Jersey) looked on happily and just listened with interest to our conversation - adding an odd nod. 

A chap called Jake Tilson makes menus for all the meals at the Symposia and they are real collectors' items.  I shall treasure all mine.  Forever.  Friday's Dinner was cooked by my old mate Shaun Hill (we did get together) with the generosity and assistance of Tim Kelsey and the staff of St Catz.  Tim Kelsey is the head chef at Catz and extremely co-operative with the Trustees when organising the Symposia.  The actual menu started with Seared Monkfish with Mustard and Cucumber Sauce, was followed by Roast Rack of Lamb with Summer Vegetables and Lamb Shoulder Stew and finished with a Buttermilk pudding with Summer Berries and Cardomom Honey Syrup.  The monkfish was fabulous, a creamy mustard grain sauce with ribbons of steamed cucumber.  The lamb racks were perfectly cooked and had already been cut in the kitchen, they were placed on top of a delicious lamb stew made with flagelot and broad beans with whole baby carrots.  The buttermilk pudding was a sort of light and luscious pannacotta.   So much for my raw food diet.  The summer berries were all uncooked so I think that will do for a start.  The accompanying wines were a 2008 Eroica Chateau Ste Michelle & Ernst Loosen from Washington Sate USA, A 2008 Pinot Noir Wittman from Rheinhessen and a 2002 Riesling Erdener Treppchen Dr Loosen from the Mosel. 

We lingered for a while over coffee and then all went our separate ways.  I found out the following day that Lidia is very famous in America, she has a television programme, was a judge on American Masterchef and has several restaurants and cookbooks published.  None of which I was told by her, we just had a lovely chat about our grandchildren and the importance of teaching them to cook.  We were pulling out the photographs, laughing about the mess they make in the kitchen and generally getting on very well.  I never saw her at breakfast, apparently she would slip off to The Randolph after dinner and sleep in luxury.  I slept in a student bed, very badly, but with a massive grin on my face and dreamt of buttermilk puddings and grandchildren.

I think that is enough for now.

I will return.


I was actually born in Doncaster but left when my parents divorced shortly before my seventh birthday.  My father still lives there and since he will be 86 in September I feel I cannot be in the area without visiting him and always do so.  My much loved aunt also lives there and she is 79 so I try to see her too.  We spent two nights staying at the guest accommodation (£5 a night for both of us) our housing association has just round the corner and so remained independent whilst enjoying seeing the relatives for an hour or two. 

We went into Donny on the bus and had a good mooch around the shops.  There was a wonderful photographic exhibition of "old" Doncaster displayed in the shopping mall and I had a lovely time identifying places I remember which have all been razed to the ground since the 1960's.   Donny looks very prosperous these days, people seem to be smarter, plenty of expensive cars on the road and a generally upbeat atmosphere.   I also bought myself a very pretty art deco sapphire and diamond ring from a pawnshop which was most reasonably priced.  I have decided that my holiday souvenirs will take the form of jewellery in the future - I get to enjoy it now and my grand-daughters will enjoy it when I die.

We returned home on the Wednesday having been away seventeen nights - Onslow was whinging for the last couple so I suspect I may be limited to a fortnight in the future!

York and Beverley and The Humber Bridge

We could not book into the hotel until after 2pm so abandoned the car and went off to the Railway Museum.  Not our first visit there but it is always such an absolute joy that no opportunity to visit is ever neglected.  It is one of the best free attractions in Britain and to a railway enthusiast absolute heaven.  Once booked into the hotel I went down to the basement swimming pool and had a good hour in there to make up for the exercise missed whilst travelling.  I do find that if I go two or three days without exercise then my body siezes up and all my joints stiffen.  One of the joys of being in my 60s I suppose.

Our room was very large and well furnished with extremely comfortable beds, we had a view over the gardens to the Minster and it was lovely to sit and watch the sun setting through the enormous window.  It being Thursday evening we wandered off to the local Wetherspoons for the curry night and Onslow was very happy to be back eating the sort of food he likes rather than the poncey stuff I favour.  Friday dawned a bit grey with intermittent rain so after my morning swim  we donned our waterproofs and went walking around York.  There was a wonderful farmers' market on in Parliament Square and since the sun broke out at lunchtime I shopped for a picnic lunch and we sat on a bench eating it and watching the world go by.  We then continued to wander around the city admiring the architecture generally and browsing in the bookshops.   Saturday dawned a bit brighter and we went to the William Etty exhibition in the art gallery in the morning and then met up with some internet friends for a picnic in the park.  It was lovely to meet people I have only "talked" to via a message board - most of them had travelled some distance and brought foodie treats for the picnic which they had made at home.   We had a lovely couple of hours together and then we went off to the Cycle Touring Club annual rally which was being held in the middle of York Racecourse.  Onslow is the proud owner of a recumbent tricycle and he had a whale of a time buying lovely presents for himself and the trike whilst I followed and produced the pennies.  We actually got sunburned that day, despite me having factor 30 lotion on my arms I really picked up the rays and so am glad that I had anointed myself before leaving the hotel.  We were too tired to bother much about supper so just shared a platter back at Wetherspoons with a drink before falling exhaustedly into bed.

Sunday we were up early and checked out to head for Caistor in Lincolnshire and went via Beverley because I have always wanted to see the Minster there.  Beverley is a delightful market town with a good selection of shops, a fine square, some interesting architechture and the wonderful Minster.  We spent about four hours there and then headed off to stay with my brother who has moved to Caistor in Lincolnshire since I last saw him.  The drive over the Humber Bridge was well worth the toll fee, the views were interesting, the bridge itself is worth looking at and it was very quiet.  Possibly it is much busier during the week but on an early Sunday afternoon there were very few vehicles using it.   Caistor was a real surprise, I had always assumed that Lincolnshire was flat fen country but Caistor is set among rolling hills and my brother lives on top of one with fabulous views which reminded me of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire.  The weather was glorious so we sat outside drinking wine and eating a barbecue followed by a huge dish of fruit.  Lovely.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


We left the M6 and crossed the country via Sedbergh and Aysgarth.  I had not seen Aysgarth since the late 60's and was glad to see that the Falls were as lovely as I remembered.  We stopped at Masham for a light lunch and had a desultory wander around the town centre but noticed nothing of real interest.  We then went to Ripon and had a bit of a mooch around for an hour, the cathedral has the most stunning pulpit I have ever seen.  Totally incongrously in a Gothic building it has a beautiful Art Nouveau pulpit made from bronze and copper - it is worth going to Ripon for that alone.  There are some lovely windy streets with very interesting architecture and an imposing main square.

We then went to Fountains Abbey and had a good walk around the grounds.  I particularly wanted to see the stained glass window which is a memorial to the Vyner daughter who was killed whilst serving in the WRNS during the second world war.  I last saw it when I was doing my army trade training at Catterick in 1968, a nasty cold Wednesday afternoon was too bad for any sports so we were all piled into a bus and taken to Fountains.  At that time I became very emotional - I suppose because I was seventeen (she was eighteen) and in uniform and I could identify with her.  I still felt the same way over forty years later.  I got quite choked up.

We then headed for York and found a Travelodge on the Tadcaster Road which could fit us in for one night - we had reservations from the following day at a posh hotel.  The Travelodge was fine, clean and basic as usual.  However, the adjoining Little Chef was a revelation, it was brilliant.  I ordered steak and chips with no great anticipation but it was extraordinarily good by any standard.  The steak was perfectly rare, the chips were crisp and hot, the wine (a Chardonnay) was delicious and the salad dressing perfect.  The following morning's coffee, toast and marmalade were also perfect.  I have not been in a Little Chef for years but will certainly try them again after this experience.

We drove into York proper and straight into the car park of our hotel, The Royal York which is right next to the station.  The car remained parked for the next three days and we walked everywhere.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Hill House

I have wanted to go to The Hill House at Helensburgh for about twenty years and this trip built in a day to ensure that I got there.  It was well worth the effort.  I am a big fan of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and have seen most of his major commissions already but The Hill House has eluded me.  It is furnished in typical Mackintosh detail with some beautiful glass and light fittings, pale plain walls with the odd frieze of stylized roses and fantastic wooden floors.  As a contrast to the overwhelming sumptuousness of late Victoriana it is absolutely brilliant.

We had seen enough by about 1530 so instead of looking for a hotel for the night we decided to push on down the M74 until we were tired and ended up staying at a Days Inn just north of Carlisle.  The first Days Inn we have ever stayed at and I was very impressed.  


We left Aviemore on Saturday morning and took a very leisurely drive via Inverness, Strathpeffer and Achnasheen to the Kyle of Lochalsh and crossed to Skye over the bridge.  We had not actually booked any accommodation in Skye but were reassured by many guest house signs showing "Vacancies" on the road from Kyeleakin up to Portree and did not doubt that we would find somewhere to sleep for the next four nights.  I had previously established that Portree has a municipal swimming pool and it seemed to be the only one on the island so I wanted to stay in Portree in order to keep up my early morning swim.  We found a twin en suite room at The Portree Hotel in the main square just a ten minute walk to the pool and it was excellent value.   Basic, but clean and with comfortable beds and a good full breakfast.  We just pottered around Portree on the Saturday afternoon and had a very good fish and chip lunch on the harbour. 

Someone obviously had vandalised the parking meters in Portree so we ended up with free parking for our entire stay.  All the ticket machines had signs on them saying "Out of Order" so we parked right outside our hotel within view of the Police Station without problems. 

On the Sunday I booked a boat trip out into Raasay Sound to see some wildlife and it was absolutely brilliant.  We saw both sea and golden eagles, seals and a porpoise.  We went past some salmon farm pens and the salmon were leaping in them, they were round pens instead of the early rectangular ones and it seems this enables the fish to swim better and results in more exercise and therefore less flabby flesh.  Apparently the fish are not fed for the last seven days which ensures a lot of the fat is lost naturally.  We went to The Prince of India for supper and had excellent popadums followed by decent curries and rather nice Peshwari naan bread.  The portions were much smaller than our local Indian restaurant, but adequate, and on reflection we could probably have managed a starter too. 

Monday dawned bright and sunny and we went off early to visit Dunvegan Castle which has the chattiest guides I have ever come across.  Every single one wanted to be my new best friend and it was one of the most interesting castle tours I have ever done (being married to Onslow who is a castle nut means I have done hundreds) and gave a really good insight into the Maclean clan and Scottish history generally.  We left and went off to do what for me was to be the highlight of the trip, lunch at The Three Chimneys.  The last five miles or so are done on a single track road with passing places, truly destination dining, you don't pass it on the way to anywhere else.  We started with the most fantastic bread, I chose rosemary and sea salt which tasted superb.  The texture of the bread was almost cake like, very soft and dense but light as a feather.  Questioning revealed that the rosemary is pounded in a pestle and mortar and olive oil added, this is then left to steep before being strained into the bread dough so you get all the flavour and none of the woody bits.  Malden type salt was evident on the crust.  It was worth going there for the bread alone and I did an Oliver Twist and requested more.  The waitress proudly told us that the butter was churned on the premises - the implication being that it was local produce.  However, I had not seen any cows on Skye so being awkward I asked where the cream came from.  She returned from the kitchen and said "Scotland" so that was that.  I felt it a bit unnecessary and the butter was not that good, certainly not on a par with Lescure or Echire.  I had braised blade of beef as a starter which was served with a side dish of very finely sliced cauliflower (I suspect with a mandoline) mixed with pickled onion.  The pickled onion was not the usual small onions we see but about the size of an apple - it had been sliced into long thin shards and mixed with the califlower, it was lovely.  Onslow had what was described as fish soup which was more like a stew with a deliciously flavoured broth with huge chunks of monkfish and langoustine in there.  We both had the seafood platter which was in the main lovely but neither of us was very keen on the mussels which had been marinated in a tomatoey vinegary oniony cold sauce.  The potted crab was fabulous, the oysters and scallops fantastic, the winkles superb but the langoustine had not been deveined - quite a failing in my eyes.  Mind you, it did not stop me eating them, I just deveined at the table.  I ordered the cheese board which was excellent, my first crowdie but I knew the Dunsyre Blue, the Mull cheddar and the camembert type .  The oatcakes were made in the kitchen and were the best I have ever tasted.  Onslow was driving but I had a glass of Chilean Rose with the starter, a French Sancerre with the main and a Banyuls with the cheese.  All perfect.  Onslow had a coffee and was brought with it a plate of petits fours which neither of us had room for.  They were put into a little box for us to take away and eat later.   At £109 for the two of I did not think it bad value at all. 

On Tuesday we had a nice drive around the rest of the island, some fantastic views and I quite see why Onslow wanted to go there.  We ate that night at the Bosville and had really gorgeous mussels in a cream and garlic sauce with good bread.

And the following morning was dull and dreich and we did not mind leaving for our next stop at Helensburgh.