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This weekend, the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery will be held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford and I cannot be there.  Instead, many of my friends will be there and I will hear all about it when they return.  This year’s topic is on “Food & Language” and although I had an idea for an abstract, I was much too busy to do the research.  Besides, after reading this year’s paper topics, I don’t think I would’ve had anything near as intellectual to add.  I cannot believe that a whole year has gone by without me even reporting on what happened last year so although late, it’s better than nothing.

Because it was my second time at the symposium last year, I felt “at home” and less nervous about mingling with people and reading my paper (although I was put in the big lecture theatre which is always very intimidating).  The faces were familiar and surprisingly, people remembered me as well.  I was thrilled to hear that I’d be reading my paper with Elizabeth Andoh, the author of “Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen” – winner of the 2006 James Beard Cookbook award and that our moderator this time was Fuschia Dunlop, Chinese Scholar and author of “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” and “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” to name a few.  In 2006, I read my paper with Fuschia on the same panel so I was happy to be with someone I was familiar with so it kept my nerves down.

When the symposium schedule is put together every year, similar subjects are often lumped into one session and it was natural that both me and Elizabeth were paired together since we were talking about Japanese subjects.  Elizabeth read a paper on Modoki, vegetarian temple food that is artistically formed to resemble something completely different from what it is made of.  A very fascinating topic that was made better by Elizabeth showing great photos of such beautiful cuisine.  I thought that we worked well as a team and we bounced ideas off each other and presented the tasting of various forms of daikon together.  It was a great pleasure to be on the same panel as Elizabeth…I hope to visit her in Japan one day.

My paper was about daikon – the humble yet very important radish…but not about ordinary daikon but focused in particular about a radish that grew through asphalt in a small town in Japan and was made into a national celebrity and anthropomorphised into a symbol of hope.  The extraordinary twist to the story is that the radish was vandalized one night and caused a great uproar among the townspeople – so much so that the vandals returned the radish to its original growing place due to guilt.  This radish, although in a poorly state, was revived and has since gone on to produce four generations and will be sold as seeds.  I also went on to discuss the importance of daikon in Japanese cuisine.  It was by far no way near as intellectual as many others but my aim was to bring some lighthearted quirkiness with relevance to the topic.

What was exciting was that a film crew from BBC4 were there the whole weekend filming various people reading their topics for a new documentary on food writer/historian Alan Davidson – the founder of the symposium.  Right before we started our session, the camera guy came up to me and said how thrilled he was to hear my paper and that he was looking forward to it…that made me nervous.  Anyway, all went well and I was sent an email saying that they’d like to use footage of me in the documentary and then I signed my life away…but I still haven’t heard when this documentary will be airing…more on that when I hear about it. 

St.Katherine's College Grounds

St. Catherine's College Grounds

Us posing with my daikon dolls and books

Me and Elizabeth posing with my daikon dolls and books

 

Elizabeth, me, Fuschia (l to rt)

Fuschia, me and Elizabeth (l to rt)

If you are really interested in food from an academic angle, you should try to make your way to Oxford one year.  The symposium is attended by the “who’s who” in the industry with many there who have written numerous books.  My favourite regular is Claudia Roden, who is so sweet and her book on Jewish cuisines is one of my all-time favourites.  In 2006, Jeffrey Steingarten attended and so many people were dying to talk to him…I wasn’t one of them but he was keen to talk to my friend who didn’t even know who he was!  The symposium is a great place to network with like-minded people and not feel bad about making any elite comments about food…lol.  The food was great last year and it looks like it will be fabulous this year as well.  Looks like Raymond Blanc’s (who’s there every year) restaurant Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons will be providing the last dinner and it’ll be called, “The Language of French Gastronomy:  From the Raw to the Cooked.”  I’m jealous.

 

Raymond Blanc in the middle as moderator

Raymond Blanc in the middle as moderator

 

 

 

 

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I was meaning to write about my two month journey in the order that I traveled but if I do that, I’d never get anything written in this blog.  My lack of posting is due to a new job that has me in front of a computer screen all day and you know, I don’t want to get online as soon as I get home…

Jamie's restaurant

In September 2008, I spent some time in Oxford (a place close to my heart) to present a paper at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery (more on that later) and to visit some old friends.  I haven’t been to Oxford in two years and I noticed that a few new restaurants had popped up – one of which was Jamie Oliver’s Italian Restaurant simply called “Jamie’s Italian” on 24-26 George Street.  I can’t even remember what was there before (if you remember, email me please).  It is the first restaurant in a planned 20 restaurants completely backed by Jamie and his business partners (currently the other locations are Bath and Kingston).  The idea behind his Italian restaurants is to provide good, casual Italian food – similar to Antonio Carluccio’s successful chain through Britain called Carluccio’s.

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations but according to their website, if you are a group of 8 or more, they may accommodate you.  Luckily we arrived at around 2pm, which was after the lunch rush but we still had to wait a little while for a table.  The restaurant was buzzing with people and while we waited, I watched an employee making fresh pasta in front of the large window that faces the main street.  I was quite impressed that they made the pasta fresh, as needed.  We were seated in the back of the restaurant and because we were starving, it didn’t take us long to decide what to order but me and a friend were both agonizing whether to get the prawn linguini or truffle tagiatelle so we decided to split them.  The other thing that impressed me was their children’s menu.  Jamie is well-known for educating children to eat healthy, real food – no chicken nuggets and chips or hot dogs at this joint – the kid’s meals were basically smaller portions of adult pastas such as spaghetti bolognese served with free, all-you-can-drink cordial.  Kids even got crayons, stickers and a cool twirly fork to eat their spaghetti (which probably requires your child to be at least 4 or 5 yrs old to maneuver properly).  Our friend’s daughter is 3 and she was too young to understand the concept that if you run the fork between your thumb and forefinger, it will automatically twirl your pasta for you but it is a very cool concept if you are a kid!

Employee making pasta at front of restaurant

Employee making pasta at front of restaurant

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Pasta coming out of machine

We ordered a bruschetta and two bowls of gorgeous green olives which my friend’s daughter relished nearly all by herself.  We as a table ordered the pumpkin ravioli, sausage pappardelle, truffle tagiatelle, prawn linguini and a kid’s spaghetti bolognaise.  I loved the sausage pappardelle (very meaty, rich and satisfying) and the truffle tagiatelle was just simple buttery and truffle-y pasta – yum!  The bruschetta was a bit odd – toast was so hard that it sort of ripped the roof of our mouths.  I have a feeling that we ordered another starter but I cannot remember it – which means that it was not that great.  I would definitely stick to the fresh pastas and next time I go, I want to try some of the meats (which sounded very good).

Jamie's Menu

Menu

Bruschetta

Bruschetta

Kids Twirly Fork

Kid's Twirly Fork

Pumpkin

Pumpkin Ravioli

Prawn Pasta 2

Prawn Linguini

Spaghetti

Sausage Pappardelle

Kid's meal at Jamie's

Kid's Spaghetti Bolognaise meal at Jamie's

For a party of 4 adults and one child, the price of the meal wasn’t too bad – it was actually affordable by English standards but with our Australian dollar so weak at the moment, after I saw the currency conversion on our credit card statement, I nearly had a heart attack!

The only complaint I have is that the service was forgetful and although most of the tables around us were pretty empty, our young  20-something yr old server seemed to have friends eating at the table next to us and just kept chatting to them while we kept trying to get her attention.  The bad service should be no excuse especially since we started eating after the major lunch rush.  Perhaps it would have been more attentive if we sat in the lighter, airier at the front of the restaurant.

Overall, it was one of the best meals I had in my travels when considering value and quality.  We did eat at a couple of Michelin starred restaurants (more on that later too) but of course, the price was much higher and the food was often more complicated than I was in the mood for at times.  Jamie’s Italian is a good, casual place to eat that is also very child friendly without compromising on quality.

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