Thursday, December 07, 2006

Your sausages are so beautiful I want to cry.

After a couple of false starts, I finally got round to watching Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection on BBC2 the other night. I chanced upon last week's edition, focusing on pizza, on my saved programmes - and then managed to find out how Heston cooks his Sunday roast this week (clue: it doesn't involve a microwave, or Tesco Finest pre-prepared veg).

It's incredibly easy to scoff at Hesty B, especially in this series where he seems intent on taking straightforward dishes and rendering them impossible to cook outside a physics lab or in less than a week.

If I've not bored you before with my perfect recipe for bangers and mash (pork and apple sausages; mashed potatoes made with creme fraiche and Cracker Barrel cheddar in a ricer, NOT a sieve; Oxo 'special gravy' with winter berry and shallots at 67p a throw), then you've been very lucky. But if I had ever, ever thought I was fussy, then I must take it back. Because Heston's sausages need back fat smoked on a barbecue, not to mention my favourite ingredient - toast-flavoured water. First, catch your toast. Then let it soak in water for, I don't know, a few days. Simply strain, et voila - eau de toast. Oh, and he likes the sensation of unmelted butter on top of the sausages, so goes into his laboratory to create heat-resistant gelled butter. (Did you read that carefully? The man has a laboratory. It's covered in gleaming stainless steel and instruments of unfathomable purpose, and looks generally what people in 1950 thought the future would be like.)

In the second programme I watched, he opines that putting a chicken in the oven at 180 degrees will hopelessly overcook it and instead favours roasting at 50 degrees for several hours. But there's one problem - no crispy skin. So we watch Heston attempt to deep fry his bird, causing a respectably sized fire in the process. He eventually settles on frying it lightly in a pan.

I think it was the deep fryer that converted me, actually. I suddenly realised I wouldn't have been surprised to see him pop up in Lausanne and announce: "To create the perfect crispy skin, I'm going to use this particle accelerator to make this chicken collide with another chicken, thus creating dark chicken." As he inspected his hopelessly cremated poultry with a rueful acceptance, I thought: this man's a maniac. Awesome.

I stopped carping about the total insanity of his methods and the chances of anyone ever recreating them at home, and began to enjoy the programme for what it was: a window on to one man's obsession. Looked at that way, it's all rather fun. What's wrong with the pursuit of perfection, even if most us will happily settle for just above mediocre? I know I'll never wear a couture dress, or own a Magritte, or drive a Bugatti Veyron, but I'm glad they exist, somewhere, out there.

Anyway, I think Heston should be given enough money by the State to spend the rest of his life pottering round his laboratory, trying to create the purest essence of chicken to spray over his Sunday roast. Because he's an artist, and art isn't reasonable or practical, it just is.

(If you aren't reviling me as a total pseud or muttering seditiously about starving indegenous peoples and vowing never to read this blog again, then do check out the BBC website to see the man in action.)


Blogger Paul B said...

I caught the end of the chicken one actually as I was channel-hopping. Personally, as he explained that Americans use this big fryer for turkey, I was thinking: "no wonder the Yanks are so fat if they think that deep-frying a whole bird constitutes the basis of a balanced meal."

I was then thinking: "I really want to try deep-frying a whole chicken next Sunday now." Look out for our flat on the news if it catches fire in the same way that his did.

12/07/2006 8:27 pm  
Blogger andi said...

OK, so I've managed to feel my life was complete without exposure to Heston on the television (he used to be exciting enough in the Observer or Grauniad), but now I feel that I have to watch this program!

To be fair it's the whole television cooks thing isn't it? Ok so I don't own a gleaming laboratory like his, but neither do I own a scarily tidy kitchen/conservatory like Delia smith nor will I ever be able to flit like a well-endowed dryad while baking as another televsion notable does. Television cooking isn't about instruction but about showing you what cooking would be like if you didn't have a life involving anything else. Note for example that now she's running Norwich city Delia has stopped cooking on the telly and is probably eating bacon sandwiches and quick-cook pasta.

I'm voting for Rick Stein and Hugh F-W as people who cook like normal people do (though of course in the case of Hugh normal involves finding a use for the stuff the cat brings in), in that they don't ponce about they cook it and eat it, and leaving you thinking 'I could do that'. Ken Hom introduced us all to the delights of a flaming dustbin lid, but how many of us actually do all that precision chopping first which is why our food doesn't look like Ken's.

The fascination of Masterchef is watching people who cook like civilians finding out just how bloody difficult it is to cook like professionals and we know that we couldn't do it. Because we don't want to put in the time and effort, and possibly because even if we did we don't have the ability.

12/07/2006 11:10 pm  
Anonymous lb said...

I saw the chicken one too. I liked all of it, apart from the chicken-infused butter thing he did which made me feel slightly ill.

Blumenthal is a great chef because he actually bothers finding out why things taste the way they do, on a chemical basis. I don't find anything overly pretentious in it - no more so than the preening egotism shown by most other big-name chefs.

Also, somewhat surprisingly, he didn't follow the usual route into cooking - he's self-taught and came to it 'professionally' quite late, having worked as a "repo man", as he puts it (there's a biography on here).

12/08/2006 10:15 am  
Anonymous lb said...

On the other hand, his attention to detail clearly doesn't stretch to checking the text of his biography:

"Towards the end of 2001, I opened a brassiere in Bray Marina on the side of the Thames"

12/08/2006 10:21 am  
Blogger galatea said...

I can imagine him as a repo man, coming in to take your telly - then smelling your Sunday roast and stopping to offer some tips.

And yes, I find him a lot less offensive than Nigella, who was on the night after and spent the entire show pouting and talking dirty to her gravadlax.

12/08/2006 1:56 pm  
Blogger Emma said...

Ok. Food is good.

12/09/2006 8:47 pm  

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