Helen Peacocke talks to the author of a cookbook centred on Oxford’s Cowley Road
On the opening page of his fascinating book The Cowley Road Cookbook, 61-year-old Martin Stott begins by stating that although the Cowley Road is a place, it is also a state of mind.
Well, having lived in the Cowley Road area for more than 35 years, as a parent, shopper, allotment holder, local councillor, campaigner, chair of the Divinity Road Area Residents’ Association and community activist, Martin has been an active participant in the process of its evolution, so he should know.
His book may have taken just a year to write and compile, but its content and direction is something he has mulled over for many years. He began collecting material at least 30 years ago, taking photographs of every shop in the Cowley Road, and the people associated with them.
He is very proud of what has been created in the area and believes that everyone recognises that the chaotic exuberance of Cowley Road contributes enormously to Oxford as a whole. He sees it as ironic that in a world-renowned city that boasts one of the most prestigious of universities – Oxford offers a place for both. It needs Cowley Road.
As a result, Martin saw the book as a project that should not be hurried. “Perhaps that was good. I undertook a great deal of research and came to really understand the area through those early interviews, all of which I wrote down and stored.
“The idea of placing them in a book came to me suddenly in 2013 when I realised the countless interviews helped me capture the imprint left by various overlapping and intermingling waves of migration: pilgrim, traders, scholars, refugees, and immigrants who, over time, have made the area one of the most vibrant, eclectic and ethnically diverse in England.”
He gained inspiration from The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondantje Rolls and the Gloucester Road WI who put together The Gloucester Road Cookbook.
“One gave me the idea of writing a cookbook about the culinary delights of a particular street, and the other showed me that mixing up an historical narrative with recipes that illustrate the place and the characters, really works,” he said.
Martin originally moved to Oxford to take up a job with the Political Ecology Research Group. He has retired now, but like so many admits to being busier now than when he worked, spending much of his time on his allotment where he grows an impressive array of fruit and vegetables, many of which he uses to decorate his home in Divinity Road, pumpkins particularly.
He turned his fascination for local history into a time-consuming hobby too. Indeed, as well as his photographs, he boasts a vast collection of books on Oxford, including one that dates back to 1676. Such books have provided him with vital information for his book, including numerous accounts of the bread riots of 1876 and the lives of the people who were expected to provide food for the city, a large proportion of which went to the kitchens of the city’s colleges.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “During the 20th century, and despite the domination of the university, the Cowley Road gradually evolved into a place where you could find fascinating food, however it is not, nor ever has been, a sophisticated foodie heaven,” he said pointedly.
“How could it be?” he asks, pointing out that it’s a street lined with pubs, bars and takeaways primarily aimed at a student and low-income clientele.
Instead, he highlights its ethnic diversity which has opened up a world of cuisines to Oxford’s lucky inhabitants.
“Through the food it serves now, however, Cowley Road has become a celebration of multiculturalism, which ironically the poor enjoyed first. Ask Oxford’s post-war students for their memories of the food they ate here and many will speak of the establishments in the Cowley Road where they encountered delicious spiced food from India for the first time.
“Some recall the way they competed with each other to enjoy a meal in every catering establishment along the street, usually working their way from The Plain to the Regal Cinema and back again.”
Whilst Martin has included more than 60 recipes in his book, he admits it’s not a cookery book as such, but more of a social history as witnessed through its food.
The recipes he has included are not complex lists of ingredients, but rather simple dishes that someone like him can cook.
He has even included one of his Irish grandmother’s handwritten recipes for a real ‘olesome rabbit dinner created from potatoes, swedes, turnips and rabbits that had been marinated in cider for 12 hours.
Martin developed other recipes by cooking for his two daughters, Nadine and Alice (now in their mid 20s). By his own admission this task of preparing food for two young girls was a matter of learning as he went along.
Obviously produce from his allotment helped and acted as inspiration. He says that orchards and community gardens in East Oxford still provide a surprisingly large amount of the food found locally too, and of course the area now boasts a superb farmers’ market which is a splendid example of the many cultures it caters for.
Neither can we forget the vibrant annual carnival where evidence of the world’s dishes can be found scattered along its length, as restaurants, cafes and pubs all spill on to the pavements, cooking for the passers-by, still teaching us about foreign food.
Its shops cater for these exotic and eclectic menus and the everyday meals eaten by its residents, enabling them to overflow with exotic fruits, along with copious amounts of herbs and spices which vie with each other for space, attracting cooks and chefs from all over the city who are looking for authentic curry ingredients.
Now that it’s finished Martin is happy that The Cowley Road Cookbook is a job well done, even if it did take him a lifetime to achieve. He says that putting this book together felt rather like learning to cook, as it has involved the co-operation and encouragement of many people in many different ways, and he thanks them all for their interest and help.
The Cowley Road Cookbook is an Oxfordfolio publication for Signal Books. It is available for £14.99.