On first glance, Heston Blumenthal’s development kitchen – the place where the really weird and wonderful stuff happens – is a disappointment. What was I expecting? Pixies spinning edible gold leaf, and bubbling cauldrons roiling with smoke. An Oompa-Loompa or two, perhaps. But it looks like a normal science lab. You have to look a little harder to find the magic. What are those Petri dishes neatly arranged on that shelf for? Blumenthal brings out a tin of toffees. ‘Try one,’ he says. I start to unwrap it. ‘No, like this,’ he says and pops the whole thing in his mouth, wrapper and all. I do the same and the wrapper – which I had assumed was plastic – melts in my mouth. I laugh out loud because it feels so surprising. Blumenthal grins and nods. ‘We make the individual wrappers in those Petri dishes,’ he says. I scan the bookshelves and there, nestled between recipe books and science books, is a copy of Alice in Wonderland.
The quaint, old-fashioned Berkshire village of Bray is an unlikely breeding ground for some of the most exciting, modern and, frankly quite bonkers food in the world, but then Blumenthal is nothing if not about contrasts. He mixes unusual flavours, textures, even temperatures. It is why when you slurp down his hot and iced tea – half of which is warm, half cold but with no physical barrier between the two in the glass – you marvel at the magic of it. Or why, on the surface, Blumenthal is a solid man of 42 running a business, but underneath that stocky build and shaved head, he’s a kid in a sweetshop.
Blumenthal’s food has often been called ‘molecular gastronomy’, because of his obsessive interest in science and how it can be applied in the kitchen, but he doesn’t like that description. ‘It’s just cooking, just an evolution,’ he says. People talk about his wackier recipes, such as his famed bacon-and-egg ice cream, but Blumenthal is just as keen to use his scientific knowledge to perfect a cut of meat (vacuum-pack it, then cook it for 72 hours in a warm-water bath). ‘Ultimately, all the technology and tricks aren’t the important factor. What it comes down to is: does it taste good?’
It does, of course. His restaurant, the Fat Duck, has three Michelin stars and has been voted the best restaurant in the world, but Heston Blumenthal is not just a cook. He’s an illusionist, a scientist, a comedian. He’s Willy Wonka, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland all rolled into one. Where you or I see a seashell or a strap of leather, Blumenthal sees a sign saying, ‘Eat me.’ Once, he tried to make an essence by distilling bits of rope to go with a fish dish, to conjure up images of old fishing boats. ‘It tasted too rubbery,’ he says. ‘We should have used rope that had been in the sea for years, with barnacles attached, all oily.’ He is like a child, he says, ‘always putting things in my mouth’.
His boyish enthusiasm and energy (he only sleeps for four hours a night, he says) is catching. ‘Do you know the difference between taste and flavour?’ he asks. Er, no. Taste, he says, is a sense – from the thousands of tastebuds on your tongue and can only distinguish sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). It is smell (and also sight, touch and to an extent, sound) that really affects the flavour of our food. I’m starting to get what Blumenthal is on about: food shouldn’t simply taste good, it should have flavour.
He pours a caramel and cream concoction into the bowl of a mixer and asks me to spoon in some dry ice (solid carbon dioxide). Thrillingly, a huge cloud of vapour billows out from the bowl and the mix immediately starts to harden. I add more and within seconds, we have ice cream. We dig in. It tastes like ice cream only more… fizzy? Is it slightly fizzy? ‘Yes, funny, isn’t it?’ says Blumenthal (dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, the stuff they use to make drinks fizzy). It is funny; we laugh. It is also delicious.