“One third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted before it is eaten, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates,” said a BBC bulletin on 3 July.
The 34th annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery took place 11-13 July 2014 at St Catherine’s College on the topic “Food & Markets.” Waste was on our minds. It might seem a far cry from the subjects explored in the past by founders and participants including Alan Davidson, Theodore Zeldin, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden, Nicholas Kurti, Raymond Blanc, Heston Blumenthal, Shaun Hill, Jeremy Lee, Rowley Leigh, Stevie Parle, Camellia and Namita Panjabi, J.P. Flandrin, Harold McGee, Marina Warner and co., but we discovered – startlingly – that food waste has long been mitigated by recycling leftover food – and that doing so can be a gastronomic delight.
Professor Janet Beizer of Harvard delivered an eye-opening illustrated plenary lecture “The Emperor’s Plate: Marketing Leftovers in 19th Century Paris.” There exist visual images of people buying and selling leftovers at Les Halles. It was the perk of some servants to collect up the food from the plates of their master and his guests, and at Les Halles these were bought and sold by specialist vendors, usually tough-looking old women. There was even a specialist market for what were called “Harlequins,” decoratively arranged plates, which might contain a duck leg with only a single bite taken out of it; the remains of a truffled breast of chicken; half a ripe peach; a bit of a timbale of vegetables and so on, priced according to their attractiveness. Remember, at this time only the Paris bourgeoisie had kitchens. The mass of the population had to eat away from home or consumed takeaway food. The poorest of all, the homeless, could only afford to eat at the leftover stalls, where you could get a meal for three sous (three half-pence). The supply chain went from the top of society to the bottom, so it was indeed possible that a member of the lumpen proletariat might munch a morsel that really did come from the half-finished plate of the Emperor himself.
For us Symposiasts, though, the elephant in the elegant Arne Jacobsen-designed St Catz dining hall was our own food waste caused by the spectacular meals we consumed. Allegra McEverdy set the standard with her high-end Street Food for her “Market Dinner”. Sat lunch was a wonderful Russian lunch, featuring keynote speaker and prize-winning author Anya von Bremzen’s recipe for Soviet-era kotletki. Sat dinner was Danish superstar cook Trine Hahnemann’s “Nordic Summer Banquet”. Then came Sunday lunch. Two hundred Symposiasts filled the Hall for “Market Leftovers with Food Artist Joseph Pepe Patricio.” There was a clue to what was about to happen. Six giant glass bowls were filled with water, rose petals and herbs, alongside huge rolls of industrial kitchen paper towelling. The refectory tables were lined each side with six inches of aluminium foil, as we sat down. It took a Symposiast (who is a distinguished neurosurgeon) a few minutes to realise that these were actually Brobdinagian finger-bowls.
From the kitchen came a parade, led by a trumpeter playing a New Orleans-style hymn, followed by Tim Kelsey, head chef of St Catz in his whites, as were the rest of his staff, and then an almost endless procession of young porters and servers, their uniforms exchanged for T-shirts and jeans. They then proceeded to serve us bowls of a delicious, fragrant, substantial soup, in which you could recognise chunks of lamb from Trine Hahneman’s fashionable Nordic repast. There were no spoons; indeed there were to be no eating or serving implements at all at the table, and no plates (except the soup bowls and serving dishes) – the food was put straight onto the foil strip in front of you. So we ate our soup with our fingers, as we did the fabulous aromatic turmeric-coloured rice, and all the other magically transformed leftovers. Anya’s burger-like kotletki had become a mouth-watering dish of spicy mince. Fruit from one of the desserts was now a runny chutney. The grains from the Russian “summery olivier salad” and Trine Hahnemann’s black barley from Skaertoft Molle had become a lovely, crunchy, Middle-Eastern tasting mixture.
There was plenty of leftover wine, beer and even kvass (thanks to Berlin-resident trustee Ursula Heinzelmann), and this was, after all, as much an artistic performance as lunch. So we dug in, using three fingers and the thumb to pick up the rice, shape it into a sphere, and then add one of the more fluid foods to it before conveying it to the mouth.
For these many eminent scholars, writers and cooks from 25 countries from Iceland and Luxembourg to Mexico and New Zealand this was a taboo-breaking meal, which forced you to play with your food. (It helped that it was so delicious.) But the chief elements of each dish were very recognisable: Allegra McEverdy’s carefully ethically-sourced “porchetta” was resurrected as equally delectable barbecued pork strips, and her gorgeous French breakfast radishes continued to grace the several salads. (Trustee-designer Jake Tilson’s printed menus for Symposium meals have become “collectibles.”)
At the Oxford Symposium the term “Molecular Gastronomy” was first heard, and the label “foodie” had an early outing there. It would be magnificent if our approach to leftovers could make a contribution to the reduction of food waste.