Oxford Eats: How food cultures evolve
Geraldene Holt, award winning food writer and Patron of the Oxford Cultural Collective, reflects on how food cultures evolve over time.
Skirting the long queue of teenage tourists outside the familiar Golden Arches in Cornmarket Street, I turned left into Oxford’s Covered Market with its renowned food stalls selling fish and game and cheeses alongside impressive displays of vegetables, fruit and herbs. I selected some fresh local ingredients for lunch and while walking home I remembered that when I was young how well I was wined and dined in Oxford restaurants.
At a table in Kenneth Bell’s legendary Restaurant Elizabeth whose leaded windows faced Christchurch College, I recall a winter dish of slow-cooked oxtail in its wine-dark, richly-flavoured sauce. While at The Mitre in the High where Oxford Sausages and the justly famous Oxford Marmalade were once staples of the breakfast menu, a delightful dinner on a summer evening might end with a beautiful pale cloud of lemon syllabub served in a wine glass. This was, of course, before the historic Mitre Inn fell among corporate caterers and the Restaurant Elizabeth became a Chinese establishment.
Although some Oxford restaurants still offer a few dishes from our national repertoire, it’s in college kitchens and refectories that you are more likely to encounter examples of what Jane Grigson, in her book, English Food, described as “the good things we’ve known for centuries”.
So, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover a superbly prepared English lunch at Jeremy Mogford’s Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford. Local belly pork roasted until the skin was crisp and caramelised with the lean meat meltingly tender was served with the smoothest creamed potatoes, gleaming yellow with butter, and finely shredded braised leeks – it was a memorable main course. I also recall that almost everyone in the dining room was over fifty.
When Claudia Roden began to research her fine book on the food culture of Spain, she often asked the people she met what dishes their parents and their grand-parents cooked and ate. “The presence of old people in society is important,” writes Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in her History of Food. “It implies notions of memory, tradition, experience and cultural roots.”
Claudia was keen to learn the history, cultural background and cooking practices of Spain in order to understand its present-day society. For even in today’s globalised world, food can still vary from region to region, as in Italy. And national food preferences frequently remain fundamentally different. In Britain, for example, there is general preference for cooked food whereas in Japan sparkling fresh ingredients are so highly esteemed that some prized fish are served and eaten raw.
As the ancient county town of Oxfordshire, the city has a heritage of livestock markets, education and publishing, with car-making established one hundred years ago by William Morris. With its two universities and a bevy of secondary schools it is a place of both permanent and temporary residents, a community with a high proportion young people and a large body of academics of all ages. In the last twenty years, Oxford has become increasingly cosmopolitan with an increase in tourism which has now become a year-round phenomenon.
It is, however, not the chefs or restaurants, television programmes or books on food that have recently become the principal influence on the food of the city. It is the young: more than 30,000 students arrive in Oxford every year, both from Britain and from around the world, and they have brought the biggest changes to the food scene.
Although adapting to the ways of such a traditional place, foreign students in particular often maintain their links with their homelands by preparing dishes to recipes sent by their mothers, either by cooking in college hostels or in rented accommodation. To welcome her foreign students to Oxford, I know of one conscientious landlady who always cooks food from the homelands of her foreign students for the first term of their stay.
To satisfy this culinary demand, far more exotic vegetables, fruits and spices now appear on market stalls and on the shelves of city supermarkets where once only the Indian grocers in the Cowley Road held sway.
The Saturday outdoor market at Gloucester Green also illustrates the changes in Oxford food. I counted stalls cooking and selling hot and preparing cold food from at least twenty different countries, from Tibet to Peru, from Taiwan to Portugal. Some stalls were run by Oxford students who were displaying food from the land of their fathers. Other students and both Oxford residents and visitors were keen purchasers of this delicious kaleidoscope of flavours and cuisines.
At a meeting of food writers some years ago, Derek Cooper, the founder of the award-winning BBC Radio 4 Food Programme pronounced: “No, I’m afraid Britain does not have a food culture.” The shocked response from the audience was an audible inhalation of breath. In fact, though perhaps unwittingly, Derek was ahead of his time. Britain has not one but many food cultures: as a result of geography, as in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and, as ever, between the rural and the urban. But today, distinctive food cultures exist in some of the larger, more cosmopolitan cities. As Oxford has grown and diversified, the city has developed a food culture that reflects the food preferences of its own splendidly evolving community.