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Middle White pigs and surströmming at the Oxford Symposium

August 6, 2010 | 12:21 pm

Oxford The subject sounded like a snooze: food preservation. And yet this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery last month presented not only fascinating papers but some of the best food in the symposium’s 29-year history.

This annual event, now hosted by St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, has largely maintained its amateur status. Most papers are still contributed by passionate private scholars, and the papers that do come from academics are remarkably free of tiresome careerism. But the meals have progressed far beyond the days when attendees brought their own dishes to a very chancy potluck.

Dinner the first night featured a “preserved” meat – Middle White pig, once England’s leading pork breed, which nearly went extinct after World War II and is now being revived by breeders such as Richard Vaughan of Huntsham Court Farm.

It’s spectacular pork, juicy and flavorful with crisp, delicate crackling. The diners fell upon it like hyenas. The next night’s dinner featured boutique cheeses and sausages (including a spicy chorizo) and very tender smoked lamb, all from Ireland.

Lunch the last day was a buffet of 30 preserved foods from small traditional producers in Norway. The French are said to like stinky cheeses; the Norwegians clearly have a taste for malodorous fish. The extreme case is the fermented herring product surströmming -- the sign that it’s ready to eat is that the lid of the tin can is bulging (producers deny that there is any danger the cans might explode). Its aroma, with its heady notes of rotten egg and rancid butter, is so overwhelming that surströmming is usually eaten outdoors. Most diners gamely tasted it anyway. 

Paper topics covered a wide range, including a Transylvanian bread that is baked under a coating of charcoal; Montreal’s iconic smoked meat and its relationship to pastrami; ancient Jewish sausages; ensete, the staple food of the southern Ethiopian lowlands that has to be rotted in pits for months to be edible; and the “sticky, stinky” fermented foods (fish, meat, vegetables, tea leaves) of Nagaland, the most remote and inaccessible part of India.

My own paper, I must say, had its stinky implications. It was on the food preservation techniques of Central Asia (not too bad) and Siberia (much more challenging). Along the northern tier of this area, a lot of people, from the Lapps of Scandinavia to the Koryaks of the far northeast, make fishy things comparable to surströmming -- the Itelmen of Kamchatka rot fish in earth pits so thoroughly that sometimes it can only be removed with a ladle. The Chukchi consider soured seal flipper a delicacy, and some of the reindeer herding peoples eat partially digested moss and lichen from reindeer stomachs. (In their defense, that is sometimes the only plant food available out on the tundra.) One handy thing about living in Siberia, though, is that you can often preserve foods by just letting them lie around and freeze. 

Several of the papers broke new ground. One of the most serious was Sally Grainger’s report on her experiments in recreating the ancient Roman fish sauces garum and liquamen. Scholars have lazily assumed that these were more or less identical to modern fish sauces such as the Vietnamese nuocmam. Grainger showed that the garum recipes actually make an expensive luxury table sauce (and one blackish in color, because it contains fish blood), while liquamen was a cheaper product used only in cooking.

Sure, garum recipes call for salting fish intestines along with mackerel, but that doesn’t mean it was being made out of throwaway parts of the fish – the intestines were crucial, because they contained digestive enzymes to dissolve the fish flesh so that the garum could achieve its full fishiness.

With their murky appearance and layers of yellow fish fat, the photos of her experiments were a reminder that basic research tends to be messy and raise as many questions as it answers. The first question, with this crowd, being: What did they taste like? Surströmming, maybe?

-- Charles Perry

Photo: Middle White pig dinner. Credit: Charles Perry