I attended (virtually) the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery again this year, with much less time available to spend perusing the papers and attending the followup question and answer sessions, but it was delightful to spend some time with fellow food obsessives from around the world.
One of the keynote speakers this year was Rob Hoskins, founder of the Transition movement, speaking on “What is to What If”. I was much taken with his Rilke quote
The future must enter you long before it happens
which he used in the context of the power of imagination to make change in this world that so needs it. His talk coincided with the launch of the millionaire’s rocket and the inhumanity of that gesture in a time of such need.
“Capitalism sells us short term pleasure,” he remarked – together with all the social and personal perils that ensue when expectations don’t meet reality.
In a more grounded session, I got my hands dirty.. well, food-encrusted anyway, at a Kitchen Lab online workshop. Organized by Danish chef Birgitte Kampmann in Copenhagen and featuring a diplomatic chef in Ottawa, Cameron Stauch, we delved into several unusual ways with rice, inspired by Stauch’s cookbook, Vegetarian Viet Nam. Here’s my version of his delicious recipe for Mixed Mushroom Rice Porridge (Cháo Nấm) – well garnished with home made crispy shallots, toasted sesame seeds, cilantro and spring onions – which found its way that morning onto my brunch table… despite a momentary power outage in the midst of the session, which knocked out my modem long enough to miss a few crucial steps!
Some years ago, when I lived in central London, an Afghan restaurant on Baker Street called Caravan Serai was one of my favourite places. In one of those life coincidences, I’ve found myself on another caravan here in Canada.
For much of this year, the Planet Earth Poetry series in Victoria BC has been filming local poets reading their poetry in their chosen location. Poets Caravan is a project that maps the various locations using Google Earth; the texts of many of the poems are shown alongside the readings. The poems are also available on Youtube (without the texts).
Way back in 1988 I visited England for the first time as an adult. I had just published my second poetry collection, with a third on the way, and was keen to learn more about what was going on poetically in the UK. Before I left I got in touch with Mike Shields, then editor of the long running litmag Orbis, where I had had a few poems published. I asked if he knew any London poets I could meet, and he sent me the names Judi Benson and Peter Kenny, both of whom I met that visit and who both became longtime friends.
Towards the end of last year, Peter started up a podcast, Planet Poetry, with fellow poet Robin Houghton. Still fairly new, it charmed me from the outset with its straightforward approach; it feels like joining these two in the pub for a pleasant chat about poets they like, and what they’ve been reading and what they think about it.
So I was charmed to be invited into the virtual pub recently for a chat with Peter about long ago poems and themes of Arrivals/Departures. Hope you enjoy the trip!
Well – long in the preparation and now over! Some 450 people from around the province registered for BC’s Virtual Seedy Saturday, and there were audiences of around 150 for each session.
I attended most of the events, with growing admiration for the Farm Folk City Folk team’s stamina. They were on hand at every session to keep on top of technical issues, monitor the chat and field the questions, so speakers were well supported.
The live sessions were not recorded. These zoom days we have become accustomed to having recordings at our disposal if we cannot attend an event. The organizers explained, when this came up on the last day, that a great deal of thought and discussion had gone into the decision not to record sessions. One reason was simple logistics: how to distribute recordings after the fact to participants. Another was permissions: the speakers would have had to consent to having their images and content shared, potentially to people other than those who had registered.
And my feeling is that the sense of constant availability really knocks participation down, since many people (guilty!) do sign up for things and then don’t attend, thinking they will watch later. But this means fewer people in a live audience – which affects the energy in the ‘room’ and means some questions don’t get asked or answered.
Among my favourite sessions, though, and there were many…
Vandana Shiva kicked things off on Friday night with a fiery talk on the importance of seed and food security, and the value of local action for both.
On Saturday The Master Gardeners Q&A was lively and well-attended, with MGs from around the province, able to discuss garden issues that differ hugely in the wide range of growing climates in this province. Kristen Miskelly of Saanich Native Plants (atHaliburton Farm) gave a great overview on the value – environmental, cultural and ornamental – of native plants for gardens and restoration. Saturday’s screening of Gather was a pleasure – I’d long wanted to see this film on indigenous foodways.
On Sunday, a panel on invasive species gave some helpful reminders on the perils of random seed and plant sharing, an update on problematic species of plants and insects, and recommendations on contacting local experts to report suspects when spotted. There was Bob Wildfong‘s (Seeds of Diversity) helpful talk on how to preserve seeds and build a usable local seed collection of any size. And Connie Kuramoto gave thorough coverage of seed germination and healthy soil.
Since then, Symposiasts have been attending Kitchen Table discussions on many and various topics. Today’s theme was Smells Nasty and Nice: How they guide us in the kitchen and at the table. McGee was in conversation with food writer Fuschia Dunlop, and around 200 of us gathered round our Zoom screens to hear what they had to say, filling the Chat with the observations, quotes, questions, recommendations and the same passionately informed and good-natured banter that featured in the Symposium.
McGee enchanted us with language: the “osmocosm” is probably going to be our favourite word for a while.. encompassing geology, biology, human culture: the idea that where you live provides its own aromatic microspace. The smell of eucalyptus in San Francisco.. volcanic emissions in Hawaii.. the smell of the sea, and underlying notes of cedar used to welcome me off the plane when I’d return to Victoria.
Anosmia was a popular topic, since loss of smell (and taste) is so often a symptom of COVID-19 infection, but it can also signal other viral infections, and the sense of smell declines with age. McGee said he’d experienced anosmia a couple of times – including one bout while writing this book! – and that it greatly affected how he ate and cooked, and lived, since he stopped going out for meals as there was little point if he couldn’t taste the food.
Some smells are culturally defined – Dunlop, an expert in Chinese cuisine, described the concept of a ‘fishy’ smell in raw meat (Xīng wèi according to google translate), which is dealt with by specific preparation methods. though smell receptors are to some extent genetically determined, many smells are also contextual: such as a foul odour that followed Dunlop around town, before she realized she was carrying cheese bought earlier from Neal’s Yard Dairy (surely one of the most aromatic establishments in London). Foul became fair as she anticipated the meal to come.
A question about why out of season tomatoes don’t smell or taste of anything, and whether aroma is tied to nutrition, elicited what I am sure is a greatly simplified answer: aroma molecules in plant materials like fruits and grains are made in the course of making other molecules in the plants. Plants have limited resources in making those molecules, so having time to ripen fully will optimize the taste, texture, aroma and nutritional qualities (vitamin A in the case of the tomato). A particularly strong aroma may in fact occur at the expense of other aspects, like taste and nutrition. Growing a fruit (such as a commercial tomato) as fast and heavy as possible, pumped up with water, means all molecular pathways are being depleted, in which case a lack of scent will correlate with lack of nutrients.
Molecules are really McGee’s bread and butter. The book includes a number of tables, he said, that show molecular correlations between otherwise different foods, e.g. cucumbers and oysters. These tables show what chemists have uncovered that explain why two foods have similar aroma notes (but different intensities. A 2.5 year old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese develops an aroma like pineapple – why those resonances exist is why the book came about. Even toxic chemicals, which in larger quantities warn us off eating a food, can, in tiny amounts in the background, add an enjoyable flavour; for example notes of ammonia are present in ripe camembert, but in over-ripe camembert the ammonia overwhelms – so if the chemicals are excessive, we know to avoid the food.
The book covers far more than cooking, but cooking came up a lot in the discussion, like the idea that cooks monitor their dishes through smell (this one does it by sound!) – a kind of aromatic index of the transformation from raw to cooked. But, said McGee, really most of us start at the beginning, a quality test: we sniff anything we start cooking with – nuts (so often rancid), meats, dairy – to see what shape it’s in before they start.