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Food for Thought – a weekend of utter foodiness

Last weekend was all about me. This almost never happens, but last weekend it did. I attended the wonderful School of Artisan Food’s annual food lecture weekend – “Food for Thought”. For those not familiar with this fabulous place, the School is located on the beautiful Welbeck Estate in North Nottinghamshire, it is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Portland, is famous for its tunnels and underground ballroom and is situated at the heart of the Dukeries – the ancient hunting grounds of Royalty and Aristocracy. Not only that, the School is a fantastic resource hosting all kinds of artisan food courses from baking and patisserie to cheese making and artisan ice cream, butchery and cider making. Just a totally fantastic place.

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Last weekend rolled out some “stars” of the culinary world, to talk with and to a “foodie” audience. I would say it was an eclectic mix – food writers, bloggers, home-cooks, a Vet, retired sorts and young whipperysnappery things up from London with cuboid necklaces and spiral bound notebooks. It was also a pretty eclectic mix of speakers – including journalists, writers, chefs, farmers, historians, restaurant owners and activists – not all of whom had a book out.

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Day one started with Joanna Blythman, journalist and author. She talked about the food industry and the science of ready-made and processed food. Her most recent book “Swallow This” was already on my shelves and as many of her points came from this book, there wasn’t much revelatory here for me. She was pretty much preaching to the converted in any event, as all of us there were the sorts likely to recoil in horror at the thought of pre-packaged curry or a frozen ready-meal. I do think that, given the numbers supermarkets and processed foods actually feed – that not all science is  bad science even if it does keep your avocado green for a few weeks more than nature intended.

Next up was Jeremy Lee, Scottish, slightly mad, Head Chef at Quo Vardis. He embarked on a presentation which , I think, was kind of his journey through food, but we took so many diversions, digressions, about-turns and random tales that I am not entirely sure. What I do know is that he is an absolutely engaging speaker, very funny, very perceptive. He talked of bringing the kitchen into the dining room, about English cooking and his favourite books. It was a hugely entertaining romp.

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Jeanette Orrey MBE has been campaigning on school food for many years, and was the inspiration for Jamie Oliver’s campaign to get rid of Turkey Twizzlers from school menus and bring back real food. She was fascinating, passionate and still clearly really shocked by the state English school food was allowed to get into. I knew we were in for something special when she began her presentation by shouting several times about the horrors of “compulsive competitive tendering” I relaxed a bit when I realised in her passion she had meant to say “compulsory”. She said it as it was. Check her out.

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Bee Wilson talked about learning to feed as well as to eat. As she says, “we all begin with milk, but after that everything else is up for grabs”. Bee was followed by the utterly charming Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian chef whose recent cookbook “Mamushka” has won several awards. Olia talked about traditional (and not so traditional) Ukrainian fermented foods, and evoked such amazing images of her homeland and her culture and food. Honestly, it was lovely. I have her book already, so came away inspired to try fermentation –  I will keep you posted. She shared some of her pickled lemons with us – divine. But why don’t we have a tradition of preserving food like this? We seemed to get stuck after onions and eggs.

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I confess to missing the first speaker on the Sunday morning – nothing at all to do with the Eurovision song contest the previous evening obvs. But I started with James Whetlor who has set up a business selling goat meat – inspired by his revelatory discovery that every “billy” (male) goat born into the goat dairy industry is incinerated at birth as we have no culture of eating young goat meat (why on earth is that?). His tales of the omerta that exists around what small artisan suppliers must put in place (at their own cost) in order to supply supermarkets (he is about to start supplying Ocado) was eye-watering. This is something that people should be angry about. We think that supermarkets provide us with choice – but actually the barriers to access for some many suppliers results in the opposite. We had his goat-meat sausages for lunch (not a fan of goat’s cheese I was wary) and they were totally delicious. Check them out in Ocado.

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Honey and Co described their journey from Israel to setting up a restaurant in London selling Middle Eastern inspired food, to the award-winning recipe books. What a lovely couple this husband and wife team are. They work together in a quiet, dry, way to deliver a very funny double act. Andrew Graham Dixon – art historian and he of the Italy and Sicily Unpacked series amongst other things, gave a talk on art of the Grand Tour, he spoke fluently and wittily about Englishness and Britishness and the loucheness of the continental art scene compared to the buttoned up, imagery-lacking world of the Reformation. It was incredibly interesting and I could have listened to him all day.

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Finally, the day finished with the inimitable Food Historian, Ivan Day (check out my blogpost on his amazing Grand Tour Feast of last year), who entertained and informed us on the story of food and Largesse, about the “world turned upside down” and Baroque Food Bank equivalent the Cuccagna (a mythical land of plenty that informed  ritual feasts of increasing scale and architectural complexity that the rich would dedicate to the poor of the region to make themselves fee better) to intricate Victorian sugarwork. What a delight. Ivan went on long after he should have finished…..but no one minded.

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Book on this for next year – two days of thought-provoking discussion with, at least some, like-minded people. It is, to be fair a bit of a foodie love fest – there is quite of lot “hello daaarling, I so loved your last book” type conversations. But what the hell, we’re all a bit middle class now aren’t we?

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