Today, in the College of Cooking Excellence of Yerbai Noon University, the kitchens will be full of the smells and sounds of food long gone from this world, the lecture halls full with eager students wanting to learn about how cooking has developed over time, what their ancestors ate, how they might create authentic dishes for themselves, or use old flavours in new ways. Today is the Buentoilliçan Symposium on Ancient Food and Cookery.
The symposium began in 1873, under the auspices of Dean Harmarinthe, who had been relocated from the College of Historical Fact after three students were severely injured in a lecture hall re-enactment of the battle of Devil’s Elbow and parents were becoming concerned. An eccentric figure who held all lectures dressed in the death-robe of an Isle of Myantre bard, the dean took to her new position with zeal. Before her entrance, the College was almost entirely practical in its teaching approach, but Harmarinthe instigated a more theoretical subsection, probably because she herself was an awful cook. One of the first things the new division organised was the Symposium.
The first symposium was a relatively humble affair, in which researchers presented papers explaining the possible ways in which famed historical dishes may have been created, or which theorised possible affects certain foods had on history. Of particular note that first year was a paper on the Egg Riot of 1534, when there was a violent reaction to the fashion amongst rich Buentoillitants to adorning the outsides of their homes with boiled eggs, which was seen as a terrible waste by poorer folks. Whilst the first five or six Symposiums were entirely theoretical, eventually more and more practical elements began to filter in, until we reach the point today where there is a healthy mix of the two, most theories being accompanied by a practical demonstration.
Over the years these practical demonstrations have yielded delicious, disgusting and downright strange results. In 1932 Ophelli Tightgusset made the first example of cottonbread the city had seen since the death of the last member of the Caustman family, who held the secret of its creation to the grave. They had apparently created the fluffy foodstuff after many years of experimentation and reading contemporary accounts. Now the secret is out, cottonbread has achieved its historical popularity once more, and is served alongside coffee in many of the street cafes and breakfast establishments across the City. Other practical demonstrations are less popular; in 1973 a student made a batch of wretch, a foul-smelling yet edible soup eaten by the Castigans, a self-torturing religious sect. The whole college was evacuated.
In some of the practical demonstrations, ‘ancient food’ is perhaps taken a little too literally, with extremely old ingredients being used. Sometimes this is entirely benign, such as when a yeast culture taken from a 700 year old bottle of beer was used in the production of new, eminently drinkable, beer and a delicious loaf of bread. Other times things are a little less agreeable, such as when students were served 2000 year old bog butter (quite literally a large hunk of butter left in a bog for preservation long ago) which had been fished from the marshes that year. According to a food safety test there was nothing wrong with the butter, although several students were sick, presumably because of the unexpectedly pungent, gamey taste imparted by its long sojourn in the peaty mud. Three students later reported ‘disturbing hallucinations’ and thirteen others an insatiable desire to eat tree bark.
There are still many talks which do not, or cannot have practical demonstrations attached. In 1956 Mogana de Borsh lectured on the fate of the sorrelrat, a now-extinct woodland rodent which fed exclusively on sorrel (a fragrant, lemony woodland herb), and was as a result extremely delicious. In fact, the ‘rat’ was so delicious that it was hunted to extinction, such was the appetite for dishes such as sorrelrat delight, a kind of meaty, citrussy sweet, where the sorrelrat meat would be jellied then caramelised and served hot or cold as dessert.
This year some of the most anticipated events at the Symposium will be non-practical, such as Iniri Aedele’s talk, ‘Understanding Veganism as Religious Act,’ and Haute Breaker’s lecture on sweet ombrel, or ‘monk’s demise,’ a herb which is much-talked about as an aphrodisiac, hallucinogen and delicious food additive in ancient texts, but which is as yet unidentified. Most scholars agree that it is some relative of the umbrella plant, but that the claims of its effects were hyperbolic, a way of discrediting the religious order who once used it in their rituals, but Breaker claims to have an alternative, more plausible theory, which he will reveal today.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of Bird Baths
- Rabbit Warren Exploration Day
- Timpani Day