In Search of Perfection

I've been working my way through Heston Blumenthal's book In Search of Perfection, which accompanies the TV show of the same name.

Blumenthal is something of a food obsessive, to put it lightly. His three-star restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, England, is a palace of high-concept, creative and weird food. He uses new ingredients and techniques to inspire traditional and brand-new foods. He's most famous for his snail porridge and his bacon and egg ice cream, but there's more to his food than just flash and frizz.

Holly and I ate at the restaurant a couple of years ago and the only regret is that we opted for the cheaper lunch menu rather than the (£80 + wine + service) tasting menu. The food was just incredible, with a range of courses exploring different ideas and amuses bouche between courses. The most intriguing dish was a beetroot crumble served as a side. Only after you start eating do you realise it also has those pop-rock crystals which pop and crackle in your mouth. This gives you some idea of the playfulness of his food.

In Search of Perfection, Heston
Blumenthal

In Search of Perfection is somewhat more serious. Blumental has taken a eight classic dishes and attempts to find the perfect recipe for them, but using techniques that don't necessarily require a food laboratory or inaccessible ingredients.

He's often written in the Grauniad about brining and long, slow, low-temperature cooking as a technique for cooking meat without losing juices or tenderness. He takes this to a serious extreme in ISOP. His recipe for steak requires about thirty hours of cooking, including using an industrial blowtorch (a creme brulee type won't do) and cooking at 50° for eight hours! And this is one of the simpler, easier recipes in the book.

It's kind of daunting, seeing these kinds of recipes, but I'm also intrigued to know the results. Along the way he develops techniques that a home cook can actually do, such as the aerated chocolate layer (think aero bar) of his Black Forest Gateau. In his lab he'd use a special vacuum machine, but he demonstrates how to do it at home. Melt chocolate and butter, then quickly put it into a pre-warmed cream machine and charge with four bulbs. Squirt the chocolate into a plastic container with a hole in the top, place the whole thing into one of those vacuum storage bags and very quickly extract the air with a household vacuum cleaner. The dissolved gas from the cream machine expands as the pressure drops and you end up with a very light chocolate. Quite incredible!

I particularly appreciated his exploration of Napoli-style pizza. This is pretty much impossible to make in a standard oven, as the pros use pizza ovens that are at least 350° and you just can't get that in your domestic oven. When I finally own a home, I plan to build a pizza oven in the garden that also doubles as a grill and southern-style indirect-heat barbecue.

At some point, when I've got lots of time, I'm going to attempt some of these recipes. It should be fun. I only hope my oven can actually do temperatures that low!

Oh and if you're in the UK, make sure you get out to Bray and try The Fat Duck. Go for the tasting menu, yes it's expensive but you won't be disappointed. You can get to Bray by catching an overland train to Maidenhead and a taxi to the restaurant.