The Cowley Road Cookbook is the history of one English street and its neighbourhood through its food.
It is a subject I have been thinking about for years as I have an allotment nearby in the shadow of the Bartlemas Chapel and growing food in the vicinity of the former leper hospital is something that has happened for almost 900 years. Bartlemas Chapel’s history is one of outcasts and a neighbourhood that has both evolved through and responded to it’s outsiders, pilgrims, seekers, travellers, scholars, migrants and refugees.
Oxford has thrived on these flows of people and ideas, and the hospitality offered through the sharing of food with these visitors, and the culinary influences of those who have settled here has had a profound and under-recognised impact on the city.
The Cowley Road Cookbook traces the development of the area through what people grew and ate from the pottage of the lepers in the 12th century, and the Great Oxfordshire Cake of the Cromwellian troops that occupied Bartlemas during the Civil War.
It then follows the development via Oxford’s ‘signature foods’ Oxford marmalade and the Oxford sausage – the abattoir and factory were located on Denmark street just off Cowley Road, to the contemporary scene we find now which is vibrant, quirky, multicultural and innovative.
The book tells the story of how it all happened, and how the different participants, the colleges, religious houses, landowners, traders, and latterly the working class communities in Cowley, influenced and shaped that history.
The Cowley Road Cookbook mixes historical recipes with ones collected from local butchers and bakers, the proprietors of a range of ethnic shops and restaurants and my own, drawn from decades of living there and shopping on Cowley Road.
All told there are over 60 recipes, all with a local dimension, ranging from curried goat to nettle soup. Hence the subtitle: culinary tales and recipes from Oxford’s most eclectic street.
As Cowley Road and the east Oxford suburbs evolved and developed from the mid 19th century, their relationship with the city changed from one that was primarily a source of food for the old city and its colleges, to one where the tensions between them became apparent, manifesting in bread riots, allotment rent strikes and worries about the ‘feckless poor’ of the locality.
There are contemporary echoes of all these issues today –identity, migration, dislocation and the impact these have had in creating Oxford’s most eclectic street. Contemporary recipes make up a distinct component of the book and reflect the diversity of the street, its international connections, the traditions of hospitality and welcome afforded to friends and strangers alike as well as the diversity and quality of the food still produced in the area – ‘the terroir of the Cowley Road’.
Talking to shopkeepers and restaurateurs and tracking down and interviewing some of the earliest pioneers (the first Indian restaurants opened on Cowley Road over 50 years ago) now living in retirement in Blackbird Leys or Wood Farm, has thrown up not just fascinating recipes, but also stories of hard work, formidable obstacles and the sweet taste of success.
It has also produced tales of double dealing, unlikely alliances, and gossip about now-famous figures including celebrity chef Rick Stein and PM David Cameron, which in his case, despite having a culinary dimension, has nothing to do with pork!
The Cowley Road Cookbook is published by Signal Books and is available at all major book shops priced £14.99