“Welcome! Welcome to the new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!” Headmaster Dumbledore said as he welcomed Harry and friends to their academy of magic.
Truth is often stranger than fiction. There are many peculiar traditions that can be found at the ‘Oxford School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ that makes it the perfect set for the HP films. Funny robes and hats are worn by professors and students alike, and words of Latin are read before a formal dinner every night that sound a bit like ”Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!’. Just throw in some flying broomsticks, magic wands, toads and owls (there are already cats and rats here), and the Hogwarts experience is complete.
And it just happens that I’m living in this bubble of fantasia right now.
Taking a break from the day-to-day grind of an office job in the ‘real world’, I enrolled into the Oxford School of Witchcraft and Wizardry last year for a postgraduate degree. I was assigned to membership of Christ Church, one of the larger colleges in Oxford and apparently the only college in the world that is also a cathedral. If you are a HP fan, Christ Church is the place to be.
Among all of its majestic castle-like buildings, cloisters and quadrangles, the Great Hall is perhaps the most spectacular piece of architecture in Christ Church. The 16th century staircase (where Professor McGonagall first greeted Harry & friends) leading up to ‘Hogwarts Hall’ is simply breathtaking. Once you step inside the Hall, one is visually struck by its astounding grandeur, with a beautiful cathedral-style ceiling and stained glass windows, hanging portraits of famous ‘wizards’ (former students and deans of Christ Church) and long wooden tables with little vintage lamps that light up the plates and cutlery.
And of course, what about the food? Breakfast, lunch, dinner are served here daily for members and guests. There are actually two dinners every night: an informal and formal dinner which takes place at different times. The food is exactly the same for both (three-courses) except you must wear an academic gown with formal dinner, adding to the whole Hogwarts experience. The ‘fellows’ of the college (the Dean & professors) and their guests sit at the ‘High Table’ which is slightly elevated above our student tables and the food is much better (and they get served wine as well!)
As to the quality of the everyday meals, sadly they do not match their impressive surrounds. The honest verdict is that it’s only slightly above average compared to meals of other colleges at Oxford. For a foodie, there is nothing to really rave about.
But once in a while, there are those special ‘black tie’ occasions where one is treated to a real banquet of haute cuisine. The most recent one I attended for the annual dinner for graduates at the college. The four-course meal, with matching wines, could fit into the loosely defined category of ‘contemporary British fine cuisine’. Moving away from the traditional notoriety of ’British food’, the Brits have generally shown a lot more enthusiasm for gourmet local cuisine over the past decade, as seen in the rise and rise of ‘gastropubs’ & Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK today.
So our entrée was a pressed baby leek with rabbit terrine with beetroot, hazelnut and mango salad, beautifully plated and matched with a southern Burgundy chardonnay, St Veran Cave de Prisse 2006. The dish was visually pleasing, with bright colours and an almost geometrically-perfect triangular terrine. The terrine made the most of fresh local leek and rabbit meat, but was a little bland for my taste buds. The salad added a sweet & tangy flavour and crunchy texture which complemented the terrine. The wine was crisp and lively, quite earthy and minerally as well, with dashes of roasted lemon, pear and grapefruit scents and flavours, and a touch of smokiness. It was a good accompaniment to the dish and would also pair better with fish and seafood.
The main course stole the show, especially given my soft spot for game meats. The venison loin was tender, juicy and succulent. Its flavours were intensified by the slightly sweet peppercorn sauce. The Devils on Horseback (bacon-wrapped prunes with mango chutney) simply melted my taste buds when eaten with the venison. The venison was beautifully paired with an Argentinian Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon, Finca Flichman Expresiones 2006: a medium-bodied, well-balanced wine with strong notes of chocolate, plum and dark berries, and a touch of spice, smoke and sweet oak on the long finish.
And finally, dessert. It was a slight let-down compared to the delectable main course. It was a pink grapefruit and blood orange terrine with a beautiful, colourful swirl of fruit sauces (strawberry, mango, kiwi and blackcurrant). The grapefruit and blood orange combined well to give the terrine an alchemy of sweet, sour and bitter flavours. The fruit sauces were too sweet for my liking. However the dish was paired well with the House port that was mildly sweet, rounded, soft and lightly creamy.
After this indulgent dinner, it was almost impossible to go back to the usual menu of ‘British food’ the following night. I guess I will have to wait for the next time Harry and friends visit again…