Monday 11 November 2013

MAD food Symposium, Copenhagen

I recently attended the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen. The word mad means food in Danish and the theme of this year’s Symposium, held in a red circus tent, was GUTS. This was interpreted in a variety of ways from intestines to raw courage by the speakers. There were many dramatic moments throughout the two days.

The symposium was launched on a stage that represented a Danish forest woodland scene – trees and logs and a carpet of grass and wild plants. A whole carcass of a Gloucester Old Spot pig dangled by the back legs from a chain in the centre of the stage, which gave us a hint that this year’s MAD Symposium was going to be a visceral two days of raw emotions and painful honesty.

I was almost the only white haired woman there, that is apart from Diana Kennedy, the feisty 90 year old cookbook author and noted environmentalist who gave a spirited talk about her life collecting and documenting recipes around remote villages in Mexico for over 60 years. Virtually everyone else was young, so many brilliantly crazy people: chefs, farmers, journalists, politicians, scientists, food writers, some of the brightest minds, all united by a love and passion for food and food issues.

With Ben Reade, a past Cookery School student, head of R& D at the Nordic Food Lab, and the Butter Vikings who we are hoping will join us for the next LitFest
David Chang from Momofuko in New York who co-curated the symposium with René Redzepi and his team, launched the event by telling us about his gutsy decision to open Momofuko in 2004. He introduced Dario Cecchini, the legendary Tuscan butcher famous for being able to recite Dante spontaneously as he butchers his carcass like poetry. He strode onto the stage dressed in red, green and white, knife in hand, with his wife Kim,  and told us the story of his family who have been butchers for over 250 years. He started to learn his trade in his early teens, but didn’t get a taste of beef a la fiorentina until he was 18, as butcher’s families and children traditionally ate the offal and less expensive cuts. He spoke dreamily of the peasant dishes his mother and grandmother used to make and as he did so, he gently slit the stomach of the pig and the guts tumbled out in a neat bundle. He transferred them to the butcher's block, then removed the liver, the heart and the kidneys, all the while talking about the noble craft, the importance of rearing, feeding and treating the animal humanely and being grateful for the gift of meat. All of this in front of an audience of over 600 people. It may sound macabre but it was really beautiful, one felt that the pig was having an honourable end and was being treated with respect, and was meant to promote conscious carnivorism and respect for animals.
Attendees enjoying lunch. With Nordic pears and plums there for the taking in a hollowed-out tree trunk in the foreground.

Over two riveting days different speakers (more than two dozen in all) explored the meaning of GUTS.  Margot Henderson from Rochelle Canteen in London and Barbara Lynch chef-owner of eight successful restaurants in Boston, spoke of the guts and courage it took to establish themselves as female chefs in a largely male dominated culinary climate, what Fergus Henderson (Margot’s husband  and beloved chef owner of St John Restaurant) refers to as ‘blokedom.’ They both got a standing ovation, as did Indian activist Vandana Shiva who has for many years been a stalwart champion of biodiversity, conservation and of small farmers around the world. As ever, she spoke eloquently and passionately about the myth of the ‘green revolution’ and “the dangers of a world where five companies control all life on earth.” She reminded us that the meaning of seed in virtually every language is to renew, so in that sense GM (Genetically Modified) seeds are not seeds at all because they are manufactured to deconstruct at the end of every growing season to prevent seed saving, so that the companies can sell the seeds to the farmers and create a system of dependence. She spoke of the re-colonisation that’s happening in Africa at the hands of the biotech companies and the 250,000 farmer suicides in India that have been the result of these policies.

When ten-year-old Martha Payne, walked on stage the audience went wild, so much so that she was almost overwhelmed. She started writing her blog ‘NeverSeconds’ when she was just nine years old and gained instant notoriety and started a school lunch revolution. Her Dad, a sheep farmer from Scotland delivered her presentation as she stood shyly by his side: beautiful powerful stuff. When her head mistress banned her from blogging, her farewell post got over 11,000 emails of support in response. Her chosen charity Mary’s Meals has raised over €74,000 for kids in African villages.And there was so much more...

It was a truly memorable event.