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The secret to snail porridge

Chef Heston Blumenthal, has spilled the beans regarding molecular gastronomy (or the application of scientific principles to cooking) in a new TV show.

by: Katherine Haddon | 02 Nov 2006

Snail porridge, smoked bacon and egg ice cream and sardine on toast sorbet may not be everyone's idea of gourmet food, but British chef Heston Blumenthal has built his global reputation on such dishes.

As well as bizarre taste combinations, Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant outside London has three Michelin stars, is known for his scientific approach to cookery and uses stills and water baths to prepare food.

His new television show looks at how molecular gastronomy – or the application of scientific principles in the kitchen – could help perfect traditional dishes including fish and chips and Black Forest gateau.

But bespectacled Blumenthal's on-screen persona is more studious than other celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, whose fiery tirades have become as famous as his pot-au-feu of pigeon.

Described by the BBC as a "culinary alchemist", Blumenthal was working as an office equipment salesman and dreaming of cooking professionally when he discovered a book which he says "literally changed my life" – Harold McGee's "On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen".

This highly influential work explains in scientific terms questions such as why fish smells and what happens to meat when it is browned.

Blumenthal's second culinary epiphany came a few years after he became a professional chef and opened the Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire, west of London, in 1995.

He was preparing food on domestic gas hobs, which are lower pressure than professional ones, and became frustrated that he could only cook tiny batches of beans at a rolling boil, as convention dictates they should be.

The gas pressure was so poor that, whenever he added more than eight beans, the water came off the boil.

After some initials experiments, he made a discovery that he describes as "gastronomic blasphemy" – that it was not necessary to add salt to raise the temperature of the water and help the vegetables keep their colour.

The chef contacted Dr Peter Barham, a physicist at Bristol University in western England, who had worked extensively on the science of cooking, to find out more. Barham's reaction on being contacted by Blumenthal was, according to the latter: "Eureka! At last, a chef that understands!"

Around the same time, Blumenthal also became interested in the psychology of flavour and began to work with Professor Tony Blake, vice-president of research at Firmenich, a large commercial flavours company based in Geneva.

Blumenthal had a revelation in this field when he was serving crab ice cream to accompany a risotto of crab.

"Calling it crab ice cream creates a barrier for the taster and level of sweetness that in reality is less than perceived.

"The response, however, when told that this is in fact frozen crab bisque is totally different," he says on his website.

He has also experimented with the effect of wearing headphones while eating to play back the sounds of crispness and crunchiness in order to affect perceptions of the dish. Insights like these have made him a highly respected chef -- last year, his restaurant, where the tasting menu costs 97 pounds (145 euros, 184 dollars), was voted best in the world by food critics.

But for those whose pockets are not that deep, his television show promises to bring a free slice of molecular gastronomy into the front room.

It sees him applying scientific principles to perfect the preparation of everyday food such as fish and chips.

Using electrical meters and damp testers, he tests a range of potatoes to work out which have a high "dry matter" content, which helps ensure a fluffy texture.

And he attempts to work out how to produce batter which hardens on the outside and steams the fish from within and considers how beer can help.

The new show, "In Search Of Perfection", was launched this week on BBC2 and runs for seven weeks.

Image courtesy of AFP

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