Friday, January 05, 2007


The most absurd programme I watched in 2006 was probably Heston Blumenthal`s "In Search of Perfection". Heston, as all good bourgeois readers of the Guardian-Independent-Sunday-Times will know, owns a restaurant called The Fat Duck in Berkshire. The Fat Duck has three Michelin stars and was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005. The following year, it was relegated to second place by El Bulli, a restaurant on the Costa Brava. Both restaurants specialise in "molecular gastronomy," a sphere of cooking which seeks a conciliation between science and food (and which no domestic cook can ever hope to replicate). Via ingredients denoted merely by letters and numbers (N7 is a store cupboard favourite), Heston can magically transform bacon and eggs into ice cream, or a cup of tea into one that is half-hot, half-cold. His menu, for those with the inclination or money to see it for themselves, reads like a culinary joke :
etc etc


Food critics wax lyrical about his revolutionary powers, while the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder if he`s taking the piss. (I should point out that his Taster Menu will set you back 80 quid a head, without drinks.)

I don`t think he`s taking the piss, and I have absolutely nothing against experimenting with food. I don`t doubt that many of his dishes are delicious. But his television series was interesting because of the dishes he chose to "perfect". In the first programme, Heston tried his hand at two dishes : sausage and mash, and treacle tart with ice cream. The implication is clear : Heston wishes to take two staples and cleanse them off their proletarian muck.

Roland Barthes, in Mythologies, noted the class-differences in domestic cooking, when he demonstrated the ornamental style of cooking favoured by many French magazines :

Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which we shall in a moment see dialectically reconciled : on the one hand, fleeing from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps in a lemon, making a chicken look pink, serving grapefruit hot), and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, replacing the heads of crayfish around the sophisticated bechamel which hides their bodies). It is in fact the same pattern which one finds in the elaboration of petit-bourgeois trinkets (ashtrays in the shape of a saddle, lighters in the shape of a cigarette, terrines in the shape of a hare).

Barthes added that magazines aimed at the working class were full of recipes for absurd, decorative dishes, the ingredients for which the average person had no hope of affording, while magazines aimed at the middle classes described how to cook more straightforward dishes (a salad nicoise or, to Anglicise things, a Lancashire hotpot). The message here is that, for the working class, food is not to be consumed and enjoyed, but to be aspired to. If only housewife a could better herself and afford a partridge, a new social stratum would be hers for the taking ... but, alas, she cannot. Conversely, bourgeois housewife b does not need to aspire to partridge - she is equipped to divine the simple pleasures of a chicken or lamb shank - and so she can look down upon housewife a as a pretentious wannabe. A food column in a Sunday newspaper will tell you more about its politics and its target audience than its news section.

But Heston´s tactic is altogether more unpleasant. He wishes to shame housewife a into believeing that her humble sausage and mash is inadequate. If your pork is not taken from a bespoke pig from a farm in Somerset ; if you don`t soak the breadcrumbs first and then freeze-dry them ; hell, if you don`t own a sausage making machine and have to buy your sausages (probably from a - pshaw! - supermarket), then you don`t deserve to eat this British classic. No, let`s leave the proper preparation of this sacred dish to the experts - the real cooks, the men and women who watch Heston`s programmes and sleep soundly in the knowledge that they will never need to cook one of his laborious recipes. The mere fact of their class assures them that sausage and mash, or treacle tart and ice cream, are rightfully, morally, their preserve.


Blogger minifig said...

Personally, I think if Heston has managed to turn around his struggling restaurant by selling wanky crap to idiots then all credit to him.

If, off the back of that he's telling these idiots that they don't really know how to cook cheese on toast because they're not forking out £50 for it, then ha ha ha.

Don't worry about Housewife a - she sees through this crap for the bollocks it is and eats what she was going to eat anyway.

Smart woman.

Although I do like to wake up to a bowl of snail porridge of a morning.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert, don't diss a good sausage, irrespective of the HR position on the matter (which I would dispute to a degree as his food really has to be experienced to comment - it is more food as art than food as fuel. A seperate discussion is whether food as art is morally acceptable in any case) . Also, what would you prefer to consume on your pile of creamy mash (perhaps with a sprinkling of finely chopped spring onions incorporated)surrounded by an unctious red-wine based gravy - a pink economy supermarket sausage with the meat content being a slurry of mechanically recovered carcase leftovers and a high proportion of unmentionable bits mixed with soya rusk, or a juicy, high meat production, judiciously flavoured with herbs and spices.

Finally, I read the blog with increasing wonder - where is all this coming from? - is it in your head or are you spending far too much time in the librarys of BA. This blog perhaps should be your next attempt at publication on your return, so long as it does not get too obviously/self-conciously orientated to that end -that's probably the kiss of death on the process now!!!!

Happy New Year, Len

3:46 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Thanks, Mr W. Haven´t stepped into a library yet, but it could probably be said that I am spending far too much time in bars and cafes here. I´m just going for that Left Bank Paris vibe, doncha know...

And re. the sausage, I am certainly not dissing the sausage in itself (though I am ashamed to admit that I am rather partial to a cheap, tacky sausage). Of course, high quality food is always preferable to mass-produced crap.

But high-quality food remains a privilege, rather than a natural right. A carrot that has not been poisoned with pesticides, or a chicken which was allowed to live freely and healthily cost two or three times more than the shite you get down at Morrison´s.

Food programmes and magazines say that it is easy to eat healthily, as long as you know how. Bullshit. Firstly, it is expensive to eat healthily ; and secondly, healthy eating is seen as a cultural pursuit to be enjoyed by the middle-classes. The exception to this was Jamie Oliver´s turkey twizzler campaign. Much as he makes me wince, the guy was at least saying "No child should have to eat this crap."

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heston Blumenthal is charging £100 p er person to customers who fail to honour their bookings at his restaurant.

The Fat Duck levies the cancellation fee if dinner bookings of fiver or more are scrubbed within five days' notice.

'Metro' Wed 10 Jan 07

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Allneonlike said...

This isn't really fair. At no point does he say he is taking the favourite dishes of the proletariat, just the nation's favourite dishes, which seems like an interesting thing to re-vamp - would you rather he had made the ultimate caviar souffle or similar, which to me would be far more bourgeois and vexing. Plus, his dishes are so bizarre - and outlandishly fun, in spite of their pretention - that I cannot believe any "housewife" would be shamed by the original. The only one of the original dishes Blumenthal mocked was black forest gateau, and frankly I'm with him on that.

12:15 PM  

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