Saturday, 11 September 2010

Mystery Food And Oxonian Tales

Unbeknownst to most faithful readers, I spent last week in Oxford at a summer school that was a challenge all around: the classes startled and bemused; the accommodation (undergraduate digs in Teddy Hall) made grateful for one's humble but private bathroom arrangements at home; the schedule induced skiving urges; the breakfasts developed into battle grounds between hot beverage enthusiasts; and the food was not so much a challenge to the taste buds as an exercise for the sleuthing part of the brain (What the deuces _is_ that?).

Eventually, I decided to suck all the learnage that could be had from the classes; slept soundly in the arms of student day recollections - followed by a long, hot shower upon returning home; skived generously, mystery novel in one hand and a cup of milky tea in the other; won the tea battle; and yearned for Hogwartsian feasts most every night.

You wish to hear more, especially more detail? Then fetch yourself a beverage of your choice, settle down, and listen to this woeful account of my Oxonian adventures.

My official mission, to conquer the world of encoding and transforming for the benefit of my current bread-winning activity, shall be glossed over here. Suffice to say I learned little about the official summer school topic, but much more about human nature. I also collected marvellous material for a future sitcom.

 - - Did someone say tea?

The Tea and Me
College food is a frightful affair in general: produced on a budget in a professional kitchen that dreams of a life with Jamie Oliver when no one is cooking, it combines the magic of large volumes of food with a lack of imagination when it comes to vegetarians. More of this anon, but first, a focus on breakfasts.

Picture the scene: a large group of largely middle-aged professionals, some American, some British, gathers around bowls of cheap cereal (a fellow-eater shouted gleefully 'Mmmmh, sugar!' upon his first bite), pounces upon the offer of cooked brekkie, or (in the case of yours truly) makes do with some cardboard toast and jam. But we all know the breakfast is really about the beverages anyway, right?

Anyone who has lived in college (any Oxbridge college, I dare say) knows that the coffee is a no-no. Germans actually have a name for this type of beverage: Bluemchenkaffee. This roughly translates as 'flower coffee' - so weak that you can see the flowers painted at the bottom of the cup through a full cup of brew. Scarred by many a previous disappointed expectation, I lithely dodged the thermoses of coffee and looked for tea, which was, curiously, only served upon demand. Here I hand over to excerpts from my diary:

Day 1: By the time the teapot got round to me, its 7 (!) tea bags (in a 5-cup pot) had swum themselves into exhaustion, and I was greeted by a dirty puddle of scum-topped, steeped-till-slurp-do-us-part tea. Quick trip to a coffee house round the corner.

Day 2: Ordered and hogged pot of tea for self, removing bags after precisely 3 minutes. Bliss.

Day 3: Ordered pot of tea for self, made to remove tea bags after an already dodgy 3.5 minutes, and got barked at from across the table: "Oy, there are British (sic) people here who like strong tea - do not remove the tea bags - why don't you just put more milk in if you want it weaker?"
The lady in question did not know who she was dealing with: a historian of chemistry who knows very well to distinguish between the strength and the muddiness of tea; who can explain what happens to tannins (and your stomach lining, not to mention taste buds) after 3 minutes of water hitting tea; who can go into molecular detail about the differences between leaf tea and tea bags, and their purposes when it comes to sloshing around in a tea pot. She was also accosting a very hungry vegetarian who could manage a whole pot of tea on her own and ordered another pot of tea for the querulous over-stewer. Problem solved.

Days 4-6: No one has dared talk to the Teagirl over breakfast. Breakfast in peace. All is good. Plotting to make same strategy work in order to get toast before it's cold. Quick trip to the bakery round the corner.

College dinners. They did not involve pastry concoctions (thank goodness), but filled aubergines, tomato gunk, limp pasta and a dire need for spices. And for afters? Sponge and 'custard' (cue: package), Angel Delight (hello, '70s) and the infernal profiteroles... a decent summer pudding on the last night, though. In recognition of the logistical problems faced by college kitchens, I shall keep my peace and whip up one of my specials tonight, which will be enjoyed without the tedious background noise of conversations best not repeated.

Skiving with Lord Peter
Skiving lessons, nipping across the street to Patisserie Valerie for a bracing bucket of coffee and macaroon or to covered market for the best bath buns and quiet cuppa tea, one needs the right company to enjoy it all thoroughly. I chose to take Lord Peter Wimsey along and read, slurped and munched my way through Gaudy Night in this more than appropriate setting.

The setting is Oxford in 1935. Harriet Vane, Wimsey's long standing love interest, revisits her old college for a reunion (the 'gaudy') and gets caught in a series of crimes, thoughts about women's role in life, a dilemma between learning and life, and her own investigations which bring her heart closer to the ever sweet Lord Peter. Yes, yours truly has a major crush on the latter. In many ways, Gaudy Night is the bookish equivalent to a really good old movie: very stylish, wonderful and a classic. It's just a pity that the edition pictured above has a rather generous sprinkling of typos throughout. Lord Peter would be appalled, make a witty remark about it and then make it all better by taking one out for punting and tea. I, on the other hand, shall keep my eyes open for a vintage edition and adopt the (correctly represented) use of an apostrophe for 'phone and 'plane.

Incidentally, Harriet remarks upon the poor quality of college coffee early on in the novel - perhaps a college tradition? And with this thought in mind, I shall proceed to make myself another cup of brew from beans brought back from covered market, and read the conclusion. I cannot wait to find out whodunnit!

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