Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2014

Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal

Historic HesterIf I hadn’t already got this book, it would definitely be on my wish-list for Christmas. Historic Heston is the ultimate book for anyone interested in the history of food and cooking, and it’s a sumptuously luxurious book of ‘food porn’ into the bargain.  Unabashed by Wayne Macauley’s clever satire The Cook we here chez The Spouse et Moi are devoted to Masterchef Australia, and always look forward to Heston Blumenthal’s appearances for the extravagance of his creations and his humorous adaptations of staples like hamburgers.

Historic Heston is a generous (i.e. hefty) book of 430-odd pages, printed on expensive high-quality paper with a silky bookmark – and the witty graphics by Dave McKean and photography by Romas Foord are superb works of art in their own right. The still life for eggs in verjuice is worthy of a place in the National Gallery.  I am sorely tempted to upload a page or two just to prove it but rather than breach copyright I suggest that you can get an idea by visiting this article by Peter Aspden, and if you watch carefully you can see the still life at this trailer for the book, as well as some of McKean’s art work.    You can also see one of Foord’s still life photographs at a site called Good Food, which notes BTW that Historic Heston was co-winner of the James Beard Foundation’s annual Books, Broadcast and Journalism award for 2014.

The concept that lies behind this book is Blumenthal’s mission to rescue Britain’s melancholy reputation for awful food by exploring its grand old traditions using chef’s recipe books of the past, and adapting them into scrumptious creations for the menu at his London restaurant Dinner – and *in my dreams* wouldn’t I love to include a visit there on my next trip, sitting at the Chef’s Table!

Even if you’re not a ‘foodie’, Historic Heston is fascinating reading.  Starting in medieval times, the original recipes used all kinds of strange ingredients not always recognisable and of course the cooking methods described in Ye Olde English are entirely different.  In the chapter which charts the development of Blumenthal’s recipe for Alows of Beef, which dates from 1430, he explains that roasting, like everything else, was done over an open fire.   These alows were basically stuffed meat rolls using small cuts of beef, so they had to be cooked on a spit. Turning that spit by hand fell to one of the ‘scullions’, i.e.the lowest in the pecking order in the kitchen, and this child (who often lived and slept in the kitchen, and stripped off when tending the flames) had the job for as long as it took, supervised by the chef who monitored how the wood was burning, and when to move food nearer to or further from the flames.  We tend to think that people of the past didn’t care too much about working conditions so I was surprised to see Blumenthal quote a Kings Ordinance from 1526 that

It is ordeyned by the Kings Highnesse [that] scolyons … shall not goe naked or in garments of such vileness as they now doe… nor lye in the nights and dayes in the kitchens or ground by the fireside. (p.73)

Blumenthal, of course, is describing the arrangements in grand kitchens such as those of the king or his courtiers, but domestic cooks i.e. women would have had the same limitations in cooking over an open fire, without an army of underlings to help out (unless they had hapless children, I suppose).  This reminded me of my younger partying days when The Ex constructed a spit roast machine out of half a large metal cylindrical drum split vertically with legs welded on the bottom.  The hard labour of turning the spit was taken care of by a motor harvested from an old washing machine, but the all-day job of basting a suckling pig or whole lamb and adjusting the heat of the fire was shared with The Offspring, who like his father probably infringed whatever there may be in the way of domestic health and safety regulations by going shirtless.

Is Historic Heston a cookbook?  Well, I suppose that depends what kind of a cook you are.  In the introduction, Heston says he hopes that some readers will give it a try, listing  as more accessible than the Taffety Tart which is complex and demanding to prepare, the Spiced Pigeon from 1777 (only two pages long and 26 ingredients for 6 elements) or the Powdered Duck from 1670 (also only two pages long, but involving curing brine, smoking duck fat and a sous-vide).  If the full recipe seems daunting, he suggests that domestic cooks can cherry-pick from the techniques and elements, and I think that is most likely what The Spouse may do, starting with the Red Wine Sauce (p.81) that goes with the Alows of Beef but would also be a delicious accompaniment for any roasted beef dish.  It’s basically red wine and madeira with the sort of vegetables you’d expect, with the addition of both black and pink peppercorns and some herbs that grow in our garden.  (I may need to volunteer as the scullion when it comes to mashing it through the fine-mesh filter bag).

I reckon we could easily do the strawberries with camomile sugar served with yoghurt cream and dead-easy almond biscuits (p. 124), but I am unconvinced by Blumenthal’s devotion to adding salt to food even if it is flavoured exotically with Earl Grey tea.  And while the Taffety Tart does look too hard (I’ve never successfully made caramel and have ruined too many saucepans ever to try again) I think that even with my rather ordinary plating skills I could easily assemble some of the elements (vanilla biscuits, rose cream, puff pastry arlettes, vanilla ice-cream and poached apples) into a swish dinner party dessert, notwithstanding the absence of the apple caramel gel, the tatin, the crumble, or the crystallised rose petals and lemon zest.  I’m also just a little bit tempted by Quaking Pudding, (p.152) which although prefaced with a somewhat daunting exposé of the difficulties involved in setting what is basically an egg custard, is a recipe of only one page, and might even be dead easy since we’ve got a sous-vide.  There’s also a very simple recipe for pickled beetroot (p.166) which I might experiment with if we have too many beetroots in the vegie patch, and the technique for making pickled lemons in the sous-vide bag is brilliant! (p.279)

Whatever the challenges posed by the recipes, this is the only book of recipes that I’ve ever read from cover to cover.  Blumenthal doesn’t just present fascinating stories about the origins of the recipes and how he adapted them, he also comments on political and cultural developments in British culinary history, everything from the way that religious fasts impacted on meat eating for almost half the year, to the influence of England’s first professional female cookery writer Hannah Wolley (1670) on Britain’s traditions of plain fare.  She wrote for domestic cooks, simplifying recipes and making them less expensive.  Another great British tradition, deep-rooted anti-French sentiment prompted by the continual wars with France was responsible for the 18th century demise of court cookery books full of elaborate French dishes, and it was the enclosure of the commons that eventually led to the demise of pigeons as a staple dish.  Vast numbers of dovecotes provided pigeons for the bleak winter months when other food was scarce, but once most of the land was turned over to farming, landowners took a dim view of pigeons stripping a field bare and that was the end of the dovecotes.  And I bet you did not know that the English philosopher Francis Bacon died researching refrigeration: he experimented with stuffing a dead fowl with snow and caught pneumonia!

There’s also a very interesting chapter about how the theory of the humours (based on the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates) influenced food combinations.  The medieval diet had to take into account the idea that the human body is made of four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and these manifest themselves as bodily fluids – blood (corresponding to a sanguine temperament); phlegm (a phlegmatic personality); black bile (a melancholy disposition); and yellow bile (a tendency to choleric behaviour i.e. crankiness).  Diners had to adjust food to balance their health and behaviour, which meant eating food with the opposite humour, for example, avoiding lamb (which was thought to be moist and cold) if you were very old or very young (thought to be phlegmatic).  It had to be cooked the right way too.  Blumenthal says that

… resourceful chefs began to make a virtue out of necessity: it’s thought that the development of sauces was largely inspired by the desire to find new ways to apply that final humoral seasoning.  A green sauce made with parsley (warm and dry) was the ideal accompaniment for cold, moist pike or mackerel. (p.91)

It must have been a nightmare for domestic cooks to muck about balancing the assorted humours of their usually large families!

For me, the must-quote sentiment comes from page 261, where (discussing the breeding of more profitable pigs) Blumenthal says this:

When large-scale commerce becomes involved, flavour often seems to drop down the list of priorities.

Amen to that!

Update 3/10/14

Today I started working on Heston’s vanilla ice-cream for the swish dinner party that I bragged about above, and am feeling a little chastened.  There were some hurdles that I hadn’t anticipated.  First of all,  to infuse the milk base with flavour you add vanilla beans, (easy) and coffee beans.  Not so easy if you have one of those new-fangled coffee machines with the little pods of coffee and no actual coffee beans.  I only needed 5, so I was hardly going to buy a whole packet of coffee beans for that.

The next hurdle was that the milk has to heat up to 90 degrees which means the use of a thermometer.  Mine has a nice little clip to hold it on the side of the saucepan when I’m making marmalade, but I hadn’t used a deep enough saucepan for this milk infusion so I had to hold it for the entire time.  After that you have to let it cool to 52 degrees before you add the skim milk powder and the cream, and then you have to heat it up again to 70 degrees and keep it there for 10 minutes while you stir it as well.  I soon discovered that my lowest gas flame was still too high to keep it at 70 degrees, so I had to balance the saucepan half on/half off the flame and move it around a bit to keep it at the proper temperature.

The next step was to cool it down to 5 degrees before adding the yoghurt and lo! my neat little thermometer only starts reading at 50 degrees.  Not only that, but Heston says to do this step in a sous vide bag, but the quantity of liquid (about 15ooml, milk + cream) wasn’t going to fit in any of the bags we had.  At this stage it seemed like a good idea to cool it rapidly in its saucepan in a water bath (i.e. the kitchen sink), then add all the ice we had to a fresh water bath, and then bung it in the fridge and go out to dinner…

Whether it was the effect of two lovely glasses of a boutique red from the Hunter Valley I can’t say, but the mixture seemed pretty cold by the time we got home.  So I added the yoghurt and we put it in the ice-cream machine and now (about 90 minutes later) it looks pretty good.

Oh, and the missing coffee bean flavour? Don’t tell Heston, but I used some posh gourmet coffee-flavoured yoghurt.  It’s given the ice-cream just the merest hint of coffee flavour, offset by the vanilla.

Here’s a little slide show of my adventures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Author: Heston Blumenthal
Title: Historic Heston
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408857571
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Availability

Pre-order from Fishpond, shipping on October 9th: Historic Heston
Or (from October) good bookshops everywhere!


Responses

  1. I love Heston’s adventures in cooking Lisa, always tune in when he’son the TV too.

    • Those breathtaking desserts!
      (I wonder if he’ll set contestants the challenge of making his Mad Hatter’s tea Party with Mock Turtle Soup!

  2. Oh isn’t Heston such a dream boat! Can’t you just imagine the lively discussions about food and history and chemistry and life. Oh, swoon! Seriously, this does sound like a fascinating book and one I know you and your spouse will treasure. I think my head might explode if I tried to cook from any of the recipes (not to mention the kitchen!)

    • He really does make cooking entertaining, doesn’t he? I think that’s what I like, that something so mundane that we do every day can become an art form and yet it’s ephemeral, those beautiful artistic creations are doomed to be destroyed from the moment we take the first bite.
      No wonder food photography has become so significant. I often take photos of the dishes The Spouse makes, because I want to remember the love and care and artistry that’s gone into making them.

  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  4. […] Ice-cream from Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion, which tastes better than Heston Blumenthal’s ice-cream and is a zillion times easier to […]

  5. […] do-able by a home cook.  As you know if you read the somewhat chastened update to my review of Historic Heston, the proof is in the pudding.  (Sorry about the pun, couldn’t resist […]


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