29 November 2017

Cuisine and ceramics run along parallel timelines. Born out of necessity, both have, over time, been elevated to fine art. On November 29, at Shockoe Bottom Clay, a working clay studio in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, E.A.T.’s guests gathered around the dining table to explore the entangled worlds of pottery making and food.

Over two years of renovations, the building Shockoe Clay calls home has been transformed from a 100-year-old hardware building into a beautiful art gallery and working studio, home to over 30 local and regional artists. Just this past year, in 2017, Shockoe Clay won the Richmond Times Dispatch award for the Best Art Gallery in Richmond.

With a goal “to offer aspiring artists the opportunity to create their art in an affordable studio space and to offer local artists gallery space for visibility throughout the community,” Shockoe Clay was the perfect location for our culinary “artist,” Brandon Bundy, to take E.A.T.’s guests through the concurrent histories of pottery making and cuisine. Chef Bundy’s menu for the evening turned key moments in the history of ceramics into an edible commentary.

As guests arrived and the evening got underway, they were offered a “Hot” Toddy Old Fashioned – a toddy-like cocktail made in the style of an Old Fashioned, constructed over over ice – which they enjoyed while exploring the space and taking in the beautiful ceramic and sculpture work. The drink was comprised of bourbon, lemon juice, black-tea-infused honey syrup, Angostura bitters, and a delightful, sweet-savory Black Tea, courtesy of The Tea Cellar (Richmond, VA).

Following this herbal, aromatic start to the evening, guests were seated around the ceramic-laden tables interwoven through the studio gallery, out came the first course.

Birth of Ceramics – Ritual Figurines

For the first course, Chef Bundy looked back nearly 30,000 years, to the first known ceramic figurine for inspiration: the Venus of Dolní Vĕstonice.

His venison benedict resonated with the same ritual symbolism as the first ceramic figures, using an egg to represent fertility, and venison to convey an animalistic tone – the necessity and thrill of the hunt.

The venison had a smooth, firm texture, the natural richness of the meat accentuated by the fact that, due to its leanness, there is no fatty, salty counterpoint to the crisp autumnal flavors. The eggs were soft poached to perfection, spilling their yolk when cut into, but retaining the structural integrity of the egg white.

15,000 B.C.E. – First Japanese Pottery

If “true” pottery are defined as vessels with a specific intended purpose, then some the first true pottery comes out of the Jōmon period in Japan some 17,000 years ago. The earthenware fragments uncovered at Odai Yamamoto in 1998 demonstrate that a concerted effort to produce and use earthenware pottery predates the end of the Ice Age.

Looking to the birthplace of “true pottery” for inspiration, Chef Bundy prepared a dish where the vessel is as integral to the experience as any of the ingredients. (Imagine trying to eat ramen out of anything but a bowl…)

The ramen included skirt steak from Monrovia Farm with scallions, bean sprouts, egg, and sesame seeds. This dish was at once traditional, tangy, earthy, and crisp, enlivening the senses. Waiting until just before serving to add the scallions provided a subtle crunch to the dish that would have been missing has the scallions been given time to saturate in the hot broth.

9,000 B.C.E. – Common Pottery & Agriculture

As agriculture became more common at the dawn of the Neolithic Period, so did the creation of ceramic artifacts. Chef Bundy referenced this new focus on crop cultivation by preparing a salad, which emphasized grains (toasted barley), earthy vegetables (sweet potato, shitake), and livestock produce (goat cheese). The salad sat on a bed of fresh arugula and was garnished with candied walnuts.

The natural pepperiness of the arugula was a crisp counterpoint to the creamy, palate-coating quality of the goat cheese.

4,000 B.C.E. – Mass Production of Bowls

Following up our culinary “agricultural revolution,” Chef Bundy looked to a turning point in the timeline of ceramic-making, one that brought high quality ceramics into every home, making them a ubiquitous aspect of everyday life, as opposed to a specialized tool used for only specific tasks.

The mass production of bowls, around 4,000 B.C.E. has been understood by many scholars to indicate a shift in human civilization toward the use of standardized volumes. In homage to this versatile tool and vessel, Chef Bundy prepared perhaps its most iconic contents: soup.

Carrot soup with fresh dill, ginger, and crème fraiche struck a perfect balance between the warmth of the soup base, the crisp herbal aromatics of the fresh dill, and the cool creaminess of the crème fraiche.

A Break Between Courses

Between the fourth and fifth courses, guests were given a few moments to explore the gallery, taking their wine with them as they walked between the ceramics on display. Home to over 30 local and regional artists, the range of work at Shockoe Clay covers everything from useable crockery, to intricate and conceptual decorative pieces.

Looking at the variety of the artwork set out on the pedestals and on the walls, smelling the hearty aromas wafting around the gallery space from the braised lamb shank being finished in the kitchen area, it made you think back on those shared histories of ceramics and cuisine.

The first bowls came from the happy accident of clay-lined baskets left on riverbanks to bake in the sun; communal dining stemmed out of a necessity to efficiently use whole animals.

Earthenware was born out of a desire to capitalize on the utilitarian benefits of pottery, improving the heft and durability of ceramics; pickling and curing culinary techniques developed as a way to prepare and preserve food simultaneously, allowing for surplus storage, and the ability to travel further distances from “home base.”

As fine china porcelain filtered into Europe in the 17th century, having quality ceramics in one’s home became a status symbol; haute cuisine developed around this same period, adding an overtly artistic component to culinary pursuits, and demonstrating the new regard for dining as a leisure activity.

1600 C.E. – Advanced Techniques in Cuisine and Ceramics

Jumping back into the meal at the beginning of the 17th century, Chef Bundy focused the next course on the shift from pottery and cuisine’s simultaneous shift from necessity/utility to art form.

The fact that the birth of haute cuisine occurred during the same period that fine china porcelain was being brought to Europe through trade with the Far East is no coincidence. Cuisine was racing to match the quality and professionalism evident in the ornamented crockery on which food was being served. The invention of new culinary techniques, styles of braising and glazing, and more thoughtfully composed presentations were a direct reaction to the aesthetic excellence of fine china.

Chef Bundy reflected these changes in the aesthetics and innovative techniques in cuisine with a braised bone-in lamb shank, with maple whipped sweet potatoes, beets, and a pear-ginger jam. Braising the lamb shank resulted in a terrifically tender meat that fell right off the bone. The steam floating out from the meat carried the hearty, earthy aromas of sage and thyme. The dish paired beautifully with a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, the earthy/bitter tannic qualities in the wine falling off against the rich meat to reveal the fruit character of the vintage.

An Edible Model

Rather than commenting on pottery’s timeline for the final course, Chef Bundy chose to prepare a dessert that mimicked the attributes of pottery. His “edible model” was a white chocolate fudge, with peanut brittle, strawberry preserves, and mint syrup.

The dish’s texture was a proper homage to the kiln-born clay on display, and it capitalized on the “bitter blocking” saltiness of the peanuts (sodium has been proven to orally suppress bitter flavors – this is why sweet + salty combinations taste so good), so that the naturally sweet elements of the dark chocolate shell shone through.

At the end of the meal, guests were given a chance to ask Chef Bundy questions about his thought process going through the menu, and also to look around the space once more to see if there were any items they wished to purchase and take home with them as a ceramic memento of the evening.

The Tea Cellar, provided a selection of freshly brewed teas to any of E.A.T.’s guests who desires a warm end to the evening. Sipping tea, milling about the artwork, conversation continued between Chef Bundy, Shockoe Clay owners Susan Gaible and Mark Koslow, and E.A.T.’s guests well after the tables were cleared.

Thank you to Shockoe Clay for opening up their unique and gorgeous space for our evening of culinary exploration. Whether you are looking for a beautiful and meaningful gift for the pottery-lover in your life, simply appreciate fine ceramic work and artisan crafts, or just want to take in one of the best galleries Richmond has to offer, Shockoe Clay is a fantastic place to visit.

Like them on Facebook, to keep up to date with their events, artist showcases, and to get behind-the-scenes in a buzzing artist’s studio to see the processes that go into making personal, meaningful three dimensional art.

Check them out on Instagram to see what’s being thrown, molded, and sculpted by some of the best, most creative artists in the region.

And finally, thank you to Chef Bundy, without whom our evening could not have happened. Being able to work with someone who has your talents, energy, and creative spirit is a real privilege, and we don’t take it lightly!

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