Monday, 14 January 2013

Hervé This - Building a Meal : From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism

For many there could be nothing more tedious than reading a philosophical and scientific investigation into the preparation of six ‘bistro favourites’; for foodies of a particular bent (read me!) there could be nothing more edifying.

Let’s start with the title. Read the words ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ and your brain will probably conjure up a beatific mug shot of Heston Blumenthal and images of Masterchef contestants unsuccessfully trying to create caviar out of things that don’t normally lend themselves to roe-like presentation. In short, it’s become the buzzword(s) for weird and wonderful ways of dealing with ingredients. Read ‘Culinary Constructivism’ and most of you will already be heading for the door, asking yourselves ‘Am I back at uni? The only –ism I cared about then was plagiarism’. I’m not going to even attempt to broach the topic of constructivism, that’s a lesson for another day. Suffice it to say, Hervé This analyzes why we have chosen to construct dishes in certain ways: the pairings, the cooking methods, the chemical reactions and our various responses to it all.

A small amount of background: Hervé This is a renowned chemist and head of the world’s first lab devoted to molecular gastronomy. He is the spiritual father of Blumenthal, Adria, Achatz and many other chefs who have pushed the boundaries of culinary science and practice. By his own admission he is crazy: “Some who wants to change the way people are cooking, you have to be crazy”. Watch him on film and it’s not hard to imagine a future where he resides in a padded cell muttering incontinently “an egg white coagulates at egg yolk coagulates at 620C...onsen tamago...mayonnaise”; and every once in a while tries to discover the specific heat of a nurse’s arm or at what temperature human-brain proteins denature.

Anyway, to return to the text: when you read the list of dishes covered (hard-boiled egg, simple consommé, lamb and green beans..) you might remind yourself that Monsieur This is French and thus the bistros he eats in are different to the ones you or I would frequent. In fact, listening to him, he’s probably not eaten in a bistro since the 70s, hence the anachronistic menu! Never have I seen a hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise on a bistro menu; however, the dishes have been selected as they permit the examination of some important cooking methods: egg-cooking, stock-making, braising, grilling, deep-fat frying, custard-making, and so on.

The results of Hervé’s investigations are fascinating. Here are a few highlights to whet your appetite:
  1. For cooked green beans to retain their green colour, it is not a matter of ‘fixing the chlorophyll’. It is dependent on several factors: the beans must be fresh enough that the chlorophyll has not been degraded; they must be cooked quickly; and the water they are cooked in must not be acidic, lest the magnesium in the chlorophyll molecules be eliminated.
  2. Bringing out the flavour of meat depends in part on how much fat the meat contains. British chemist David Mottram discovered that Maillard reactions (the reactions which cause that lovely brown crust on a steak) produce different odorant compounds depending on the presence or absence of fat.
  3. After you take your chips out of the fryer, you only have a minute to wipe off the excess oil before the pressure inside the chips drops and it absorbs the oil on its surface. This applies to all fried food!
  4. If you want soft cookies, pre-cook the flour (in an oven or under the grill) and the gluten proteins are deprived of their ability to harden the cookies.

These examples will give you some idea of whether this book is for you (and whether you want to spend £10.99 on it!). I would like to clarify that the text does contain more than just intellectualized cooking tips. What Hervé has to say about diet is particularly interesting, especially for his lampooning of conventional wisdom: for instance, the Mediterranean diet (as if it existed) is constantly being extolled yet around a third of children in Greece are obese. One caveat, the book can have the whiff of ‘manifesto’ about it at times, which can become tiresome. For what it’s worth I think if you’ve given yourself the goal of changing the public’s attitude towards cooking then you’re probably going to come across as self-righteous and a little doctrinaire.

So, if you’re a hopeless skeptic, as I am, then you will be spurred on by Hervé’s endless probing: ‘Making a stock? It’s so simple that it hardly seems worth explaining. One puts meat in water and heats it. Ah but what sort of meat? From what part of the cow, if it is a beef bouillon? Fresh meat or meat that has been aged? And how much meat for how much water? What kind of water? Salted? Heated in what sort of pot?’ It goes on. Make no mistake, this book is not for the faint-hearted foodie: the chemistry can be complicated and his philosophical meanderings might try the patience of a commis chef whose been given the unenviable task of plucking a million partridges; but I would encourage those interested in the science of cooking to persevere. And if challenging culinary orthodoxy is your thing then grab a copy of Harold McGee’s ‘On Food and Cooking’ and you've got the two testaments of modernist cooking.