Food’s foremost alchemist

2011-05-20 15:08

Heston Blumenthal is the mad scientist of food and one of the best chefs in the world – and he’s coming to South Africa for the Cape Town edition of the Good Food and Wine Show next ­weekend.

He is the man who found a way to distil the taste of burnt toast into a milkshake and went to ­crazy lengths to make the perfect Peking Duck.

On the subject of duck, at his Michelin-starred establishment The Fat Duck in Bray, England, he serves all sorts of unusual culinary concoctions including snail ­porridge and bacon and egg ice-cream.
The Englishman though didn’t have an auspicious foodie start. “I grew up in London in the 1970s. It wasn’t a great time for UK gastronomy ... I mean in those days there was only one type of pasta – the super-long spaghetti that you bought in a blue packet and olive oil was something you had to go to the chemist for as it was used for ear infections!”

But a trip to France as a teenager could be deemed the first step up the culinary ladder for Blumenthal. His parents took him to Provence where the smell of lavender and French food created a pivotal sensory moment for him.

Though he had no formal training, his passion for food meant that he read the likes of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee, which doesn’t so much tell you how to make a soufflé, but tells you which active ingredient makes it rise. This unleashed the curious scientist within.

Though Blumenthal is famous for his extremely complex food combinations his favourites remain simple.

“My favourites are many and they are always with the kids, whether cooking together on holiday or having Sunday lunch. I personally love a good old Sunday roast with all the trimmings.

“Ice-cream was a big part of my childhood. I remember going to the bric-a-brac market with my grandmother every Sunday. Obviously as a kid I was so bored while she pottered around, but the reward was the ice-cream. At the end of the day she would take us to this ice-cream shop and I would get a mixture of coffee and vanilla. It was an amazing taste and you never can quite replicate it.”

This idea of a reward food tasting that much better is Blumenthal’s latest field of foodie research and one that he will be bringing to Cape Town.

“I have recently been researching the effects of reward mechanisms. For example if you eat a pistachio from the shell it tastes better than one that is already shelled for you.

“It’s quite fascinating, the emotional response to eating after we have earned it. Imagine going for a long walk on a cold rainy day and coming home to a steaming mug of hot chocolate. It might be a powdered, instant, packaged sachet but at that moment it the best you have tasted.

“Thinking of that bric-a-brac market and endless hours with my grandmother in the stalls always made that ice-cream the sweetest.”

As a pioneer of the food industry Blumenthal has also been at the forefront of the reinvigoration of sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”).

He says of the cooking technique that it is “the single greatest advancement in cooking technology in decades. It’s going to revolutionise home cooking in ways that the microwave didn’t even dream of doing”.

The technique is concerned with cooking meat and fish at the temperature at which the protein content sets, but lower than the temperature at which the flesh releases its tasty juices.

One of Blumenthal’s showpieces is sous-vide scrambled eggs, cooked in the bag at precisely 73 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes, and then served, hardly set, with beurre noisette (hazelnut butter) and truffle shavings.

Judging by the reviews, if scrambled eggs are served in heaven, they will be these.

The other food revolution that is well under way is that everyone is becoming much more savvy about asking the right questions about what’s in their food and where it’s coming from.

“In terms of the way we look at produce it’s no longer going to be just about something being organic – that doesn’t mean to say that organic isn’t good, but that the ‘organic’ label is only a measure of one thing. Our knowledge of the food chain is improving, which will help eliminate misconceptions.

“The consumer is becoming more educated and demanding better produce, and is starting to realise good produce doesn’t always start and end with the organic stamp.” – additional reporting Gayle Edmunds

» The Good Food and Wine Show runs at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from May 26 to 29. Book at Computicket.

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