Blumenthal's synthesis gives food for thought

October 21, 2005

"It's not all about reading a recipe: both the cook and the scientist need to try new ideas and experiment"


It began with a vacuum flask of boiling liquid nitrogen at - 196C. Into this were dropped expertly crafted foam balls of egg white, green tea and lime.

A few seconds at this temperature delivered little meringues that, due to their lack of thermal conductivity, we could eat whole immediately.

The effect was an initial burst of lime juice flavour, followed by the palate-cleaning effect of the tea. And then the fun - two jets of nitrogen-assisted condensation emerged through the nostrils resulting in a passable imitation of Puff the Magic Dragon.

This little bit of humour really adds to the dining experience - especially if you are an organic chemist as I am. This was our first encounter with the amazing menu at Heston Blumental's Fat Duck restaurant, renowned for its use of science to devise new dishes and chemical apparatus to prepare them. Indeed, I have experimented myself with using liquid nitrogen to create ice cream at the dinner table, giving an excellent yield of delicious dessert to the delight of our guests. With the palate raring to go, a plate of dramatically contrasting colours followed the meringues - a mustard grain ice cream and deep purple-red cabbage gazpacho. The encapsulated flavours in this preparation worked in terms of both taste and vision. A wacky idea but great. The freshness of the dish was truly excellent.

The next delight consisted of a rock oyster in a lavender jelly, although the word jelly does this an injustice, because it is a low-melting point concoction that stabilises flavours that melt in the mouth to deliver a magnificent experience. The oyster no longer tasted like a North Sea gale but rather a gentle summer sea breeze. The volatile lavender flavour, which incidentally is alpha-pinene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, plus 120 other components, was detectable more in the nose than the mouth. This demonstrated Blumenthal's chemical manipulation to great effect and made me think about my own love of cooking.

Is a good organic chemist going to be a good cook and vice versa? It's not all about reading a recipe or method and following it precisely; both the good cook and the good scientist need to try new ideas and experiment.

We moved on to the crab biscuit, deeply flavoured with a crab extract that was so intense and full of flavour we could only presume the chef employed low-temperature evaporation using rotary evaporators at low pressure. These are commonplace in chemical laboratories to reduce solutions while preserving their essential nature. Are they now part of haute cuisine?

For the main course I had best end of lamb properly cooked and not cremated, while my wife, Rose, had pot roast best end of pork with a gratin of truffled macaroni. This dish rendered her unusually speechless, but not for long.

The macaroni had been cut to 1cm lengths (plus or minus 0.01cm) and the truffle was a precision of 2mm2 pieces, each just big enough to have its own flavour. This dish was not to be missed.

The attention to detail in the preparation (chemically speaking, synthesis) of all the food was truly impressive and was clearly underpinned by a deep understanding of the chemical components and constituents that made up this memorable luncheon. If the staff of the Fat Duck ever need a job, then I am sure they could join my research group - their skills and attention to detail are worthy of a true chemist.

Steven Ley is professor of organic chemistry at Cambridge University.

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