Heston Blumenthal & elBulli Review. Sunday Times October 2008
The Sunday Times review by Jenny Diski
Credit Crunch is not yet available on the menus of elBulli or The Fat Duck restaurants; it's still only what's happening to the economy as these two books are published. Who could have foreseen it? Still, on a morning when local authorities had announced a loss of £42m, all 5.44kg of The Big Fat Duck Cook Book arrived, looking a little like a regatta with gaily coloured satin ribbon place-holders, silvered paper edges, silver-embossed feathers and duck feet on the black cloth cover and outer slipcase, and measuring 30 x 35 x 6cm thick. Just bad timing. Or good timing for any financier or pensioner planning to drown their sorrows with a plate of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, which is served with a gold-leaf-covered langoustine bouillon cube in a teapot for you to dissolve yourself with some frankincense hydrosol, and pour over sea-urchins' tongues. The book costs £100 - four-fifths of the cost of the tasting menu at The Fat Duck in Bray, itself a mere bagatelle compared to what the government is paying out to salvage capitalism.
Practically speaking, you'd be better off spending the extra £25 waiting two months for a table and heading off to Bray so they can make it for you. Hydrosols are the least of it. Molecular gastronomy is not a description that Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria at elBulli near Barcelona like any more (too boffinish, not arty enough), but whatever you call their cooking, the equipment, let alone the gold-leaf, requirements are daunting. “Spread out 60 Petri dishes, add the glycerine and gelatine and set aside until fully softened.” It's not impossible that you might have 60 Petri dishes - I've got hundreds somewhere behind my shoes in the back of a cupboard. But the setting aside? Set them aside where? Front hall, up the stairs? The kitchen work surfaces are all taken up with the dry ice, the centrifuge, overhead stirrer, pacojet, rotary evaporater, and vacuum chambers (“the use of vacuum chambers is essential to a number of techniques at The Fat Duck”). No room for Petri dishes. “The technical level of elBulli's recipes requires specialist equipment, exact measurements using the metric system and professional experience to achieve good results,” it warns at the beginning of the recipe section of A Day at elBulli.
In fact, neither of these books is designed to lie open by your chopping board while you run a truffle-oily finger down the ingredients list. They are showing off expertise and innovation. Moody photos of the chefs jostle with abstract art shots of the food, and elBulli includes a layout of the route that patrons take to pay homage to Adria in the kitchen before the meal - almost as thrilling as the two-page spread of the opening of the car park at the start of the evening. A kind of stations of the knife and fork.
Blumenthal's book might be the more vulgar of the two books as an object, but he is endearing. His virginal enthusiasm nearly redeems the overextended 125-page history of his life in cooking. His description of the development of ideas for his recipes and the trial-and-error experiments excuse the pages of detailed, impossibly difficult recipes that follow. You can even almost overlook the paragraph, in the science section, headed The Histological Structure of Foie Gras, which is nowhere complemented by another paragraph discussing The Moral Structure of Force-Feeding Geese So Their Livers Swell to Diseased Proportions. And the science section is really interesting, with articles by academics about the brain, the nature of taste and why we like what we like. It's good to know that diners found Crab Ice Cream much sweeter than the identical Frozen Crab Bisque, and that spearmint and caraway are chemical twins but molecular mirror images of each other. Left-hand spearmint, right-hand caraway. If only the book weren't so heavy.
Actually, Blumenthal is often closer to kitsch than to science. The Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh dish was originally preceded by Babe in the Manger: a communion wafer infused with the smell of baby - a scent specially created by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel (talc and faeces?). Also on the menu is an edible rose bush. Flaming sherbet fountains and beetroot/grapefruit lollies move the kitsch towards nursery nostalgia. Bacon-and-egg ice cream is now practically a cliché, and the dish Sound of the Sea is brought to your table with a conch shell from which headphones emerge to play waves and gulls in your ears, as a fan “smeared with sea odour” wafts the scent of the seaside directly to your nose. It's no surprise that Blumenthal had a magician teach his waiters how to perform sleight-of-hand tricks while serving. It's really a children's party.
A Day at elBulli, though, is not endearing in the slightest. It insists excruciatingly on the creativity and art of the chef who secludes himself every morning in a secret hideaway for “creative sessions”. I've never heard any real artist use the word “creative” about himself, but this drips with it. If you're one of the chosen 8,000 out of the 2m petitioners a year who get to have dinner (no choice, just the tasting menu) you will, apparently experience the “rhythm of the spectacle”. The dishes transgress, play, provoke and are ironic, but require “the sixth sense” of the good diner to get the “knowing wink”. Some dishes need the right weather: only when the dry north wind of the Tramontana is blowing over the mountains is it possible to make Pineapple Paper with Parmesan. Indeed, it isn't really food, it's an entire discourse. “Inventing a new language is a sign of creativity”, and they're not just inventing it, they're “making the language better”. You might want to experience Art in 4 Acts instead of supper, with instructions from the waiters on how to eat the food, and in what order each mouthful should be taken, but I'd rather have cheese on toast - the regular kind, not the spherication, molecular taste-hit cheese-on-toast benzaldehyde balanced on a bed of foaming cuckoo spit.