Sunday, 9 February 2014

Signatures: Gargouillou of Young Vegetables (Bras)

After six months in abeyance, a return for my occasional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.


Salad Days

Robuchon's Salade Marachiere
aux Truffes. Fiver if you can
spot the novelty salad leaf...

Salad, it appears is staging a comeback.


Not just, of course, any old salad. Certainly not the limpid concoctions of lettuce and tomato you’d find at your local sandwich bar. Nor (alas) the glorious fin de siècle “composed salads” of the Escoffier era (primary ingredients: lobster, crayfish, as little shrubbery as possible). And not even the 1980s salade gourmandes of Guerard or Robuchon (primary ingredients: truffles, truffles and a little shaved truffle).

No this isn’t just any ordinary salad. In fact it’s more like a bonsai horticulture show. Imagine thirty, forty, fifty different varieties of shoots, roots and leaves: Each of them individually trimmed, blanched, and carefully arranged on the plate. To go with them no thuggish vinaigrette, rather a puree of this, a slick of infused that and a sprinkle of freeze-dried crunch.

The effect is overwhelming, and deliberately so. But rather than coming from expensive ingredients like truffles or lobster, it is the sheer variety on the plate that delivers shock and awe: The freshness of perfect shoots and tendrils plucked in their prime (preferably that morning, ideally about five minutes before the start of service). The painstaking work which has gone into preparing and cooking each little leaf. The glorious array of them laid out together…


It’s salad Jim, but not as we know it…

Salad modernista
David Kinch: Into the Vegetable Garden
This modern style of salad has become a recurring feature in some of the world’s greatest restaurants:
  • In California David Kinch has made Into the Vegetable Garden the high point of his nose-to-the-ground Californian cuisine.
  • In New York, Paul Liebrandt serves up at $48 entrée simply called “Garden”, a mix of 30-50 greens, tubers and roots dished up in a Le Creuset pot.
  • A world away in icy Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Vegetable Field applies the same idea to root vegetables, with their earthy connection emphasised with his famous trompe l’oeil malt soil.
  • Meanwhile in sunny Lancashire (that last adjective was ironic, by the way), Simon Rogan serves up signature “salad explosions” at L’Enclume and The French, adding his own touch to the dish with a sprinkle of lovage-salt.
  • And in sunny Spain (that last adjective was not ironic, BTW), chef Adoni Anduriz dishes up his Vegetables: Roasted and Raw, Sprouts and Leaves, Wild and Cultivated in two-starred restaurant Mugaritz.

Rene Redzepi: Vegetable Field
The genius of this dish is that it allows chefs to do is present a dish which showcases local produce cooked with the utmost simplicity, but also create an incredibly complex dish with variations of flavour and texture to challenge the most discerning palate. Remember, it is very easy to serve prime ingredients with little adornment (the Chez Panisse style). And it’s very easy, given enough gadgetry and work-slave stagieres (the El Bulli/Fat Duck/Noma model), to create incredibly complicated dishes with dozens of different elements. But it is very difficult to do both.

Of course this dish isn't just called a “salad” or even a “modern salad”. It has a very specific name and lineage.

Le Gargouillou.


The Dish

Michel Bras: Mountain Main

If there is ever a dish which is completely intertwined with its inventor, it's Michel Bras and his Gargouillou de Jeune Legumes. After all, the Gargouillou is all about showcasing the local terroir on a plate, and Michel Bras is the three star chef most closely identified with a certain sense of place.

That place is the windswept Aubrac plateau of central France, where Bras’ and his family run their eponymous three star restaurant. Locally-born and self-taught he has created a unique cuisine that is tightly bound with the rugged Auvergne landscape. Out on the hills he forages wild leaves and shoots for his Gargouillou. In the kitchen he prepares the hardy Aubrac beef which roams the neighbouring hills. In his dining room dishes he lays out traditional Laguiole steak names, made in the next village across. Indeed the whole restaurant complex – hewn from the peak of a lonely mountain with sweeping views across the hills, means the landscape is utterly inescapable for diner and chef like.

Dead Aubrac cow, in extreme close-up...


In short the food Michel Bras cooks is resolutely tied to his tradition and region. But at the same time, it is equally forward looking and willing to innovate. Nowhere is this contrast shown more clearly than the Gargouillou.

Le Vrai Gargouillou

The idea, he says, came to him during a long run in the countryside in 1978. It was June and the fields were in full flower. He wanted to capture the richness and the beauty, to translate it into a dish….

His starting point was the Gargouillou, a traditional and rather obscure peasant dish. The 1988 Larousse mentions it in passing as “a country ragout of vegetables” but adds no detail. It was actually so obscure that none of my traditional French recipe books (include Edisud’s Cuisine d’Auverge et du Bourbonnais!) even mention it. It was only a desperate Google.fr query for “le vrai gargouillou” which turned up the elusive Pommes de terre en gargouillou.

The original Gargouillou, it turns out, is completely different from the Bras version. It’s a simple stew made by frying some country ham with bay leaves and then simmering it with potatoes, onions and a little broth (the name “gargouillou” comes from the bubbling of the simmering broth – shares a root with the English “gargle”), before finishing with a dash of parsley, cream and lemon juice. The sort of humble dish you’d expect an Auvergnat farmer to have bubbling away on a cold winters night – filling, cheap but unremarkable.

Good enough to eat...
Of course Michel Bras’ version is nothing like that – moredeconstructed gargouillouthan peasant potage. He begins by replacing the potato with vegetables and flowers. In a hat-tip to the original recipe some of the vegetables are simmered first, although individually rather than all together. The ham remains, but is gently fried and added at the last minute. As Michel Bras said, the countryside on a plate.

Niac, niac niac…


Of course so far what we have described is nothing more than an extremely posh mixed salad. Shrubbery? Tick. Plate? Tick. All we need is a dribble of vinaigrette and they we’re done.

Of course that’s where you’re wrong.


What sets it apart is the deployment of Niacs to create contrast and flavour in the dish. Niac is Michel Bras own term for little condiments, techniques or touches which add excitement to a dish. It could be anything from a herb puree to a dash of local fire-water to a sprinkle of dried olive. As Bras writes:
… we enliven our plates with many different combinations that I call niac. Niacs are structures of visual, scented, and tactile elements that sharpen the senses and prepare for new discoveries. A niac livens up, energizes, stimulates and provokes inquiry. When placed alongside the dish being presented, I design them as “touches” or “traces.” Or the niacs could be an emulsion of sorrel leaves or sweet peppers, or mixtures made from dry black olives, combinations of unrefined sugar cane and fruits, vegetable structures-the possibilities expand every day… I can find niac in a coffee cup. When the sugar has dissolved, I drink it without stirring. A teaspoon of sugar mixed with coffee remains at the bottom of the cup-the combination of strong flavours is comforting.
In the Gargouillou a number of niacs are deployed. “Flavoured pearls” of cep braised with a little garlic, coriander and parsley are used as a garnish. Parsley oil is painted onto the plate. “Crystal leaves” (oven dried herbs, shiny and brittle as glass) add a crunch, fried slices of country ham a salty note. These are all little touches which seem insignificant in isolation, but together create the little crunches and flashes which elevate the dish.


The Recipe

First take one large French plateau…

The recipe for Gargouillou of Young Vegetables was first published in of Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine (of which more later) but is now readily available from the Bras website. Actually it’s more an “instruction set” then a “recipe” per se; Unless you have access to a large French, mountainous plateau, a wide variety of its vegetation and a certain breed for French country ham, it is nigh on impossible to exactly recreate the dish. (That’s sort of the point – it’s a dish which is inescapably rooted in a certain place.)

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 1 & 2)

Nonetheless the broad formula is definitely replicable, requiring little more than a pan, some water and quite a lot of vegetable matter.

Variety and freshness of ingredients are the key. The recipe recommends several distinct categories of vegetables: perennials (asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, artichokes etc), leafy vegetables (with flowers), bulbs, roots, vegetables with pods and fruits (by this it means vegetables with seeds like cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins, not sweet things). There will inevitably be some kinds of plant life he mentions that you don't have access to (e.g. bryony, pascal celery, geslu, crapaudine, conopode, saint fiacre green beans, chayote, burnet, yarrow), but please don’t despair. I guess that’s why Michel Bras is a three-starred Michelin chef and you’re not!

The recipe gives instructions for preparing and cooking each vegetable – a list that stretches to nearly three pages. Mostly it’s just blanching in salted boiling water, but there are variations. Artichokes, cardoons and garlic are cooked in a broth flavoured with coriander and orange zest. Some greens (e.g. beet tops or fennel bulbs) are sauteed in butter or oil; crosnes are also pan-fried. Onions are wrapped in foil and roasted. A number of roots (e.g. parsley root or turnip root) are prepared as a puree, which presumably adds a bit of textural variation to the finished dish.

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 3 & 4)


The remaining pages covers the various niacs and dressings. Ceps (rather poetically termed “flavoured pearls and touches”) are blanched and then fried with garlic, coriander, parsley and thyme. There is also a parsley oil (the stems and leaves are simply macerated with the oil, rather than blitzed together as is more common). He also recommends sprouts which are gathered by soaking the seeds and sticking them in a dark place for a few days until they sprout.

To finish the dish an emulsion is prepared by frying slices of country ham and deglazing with vegetable broth and butter (note there is no viniger or acidic component, which you would normally expect). Everything is then tossed together – vegetables, sprouts, garnishes – and heated slightly before being plated “to give an impression of motion”. The recipe ends with the whimsical instruction to “Play with flavoured pearls and touches”.
  

The other Gargouillou:


There is also a second variation later in the book, the Gargouillou of Leaves, Roots, Mushrooms and Fruits in Autumn (p128). As the name suggests it’s a variation on the theme which focuses more on Autumn produce like roots, squashes and mushrooms. The flavours are slightly sweeter (on niac is a red wine, juniper and fig reduction, another step purees pumpkin with a slug of sugar). Also, rather than being dressed with ham butter he uses a more traditional hazelnut vinaigrette (the garnish is also raw prosciutto rather than fried country ham). The overall effect however is much the same.


The Book

Once upon a time in Connecticut…
Both recipes were originally appeared in Michel Bras Essential Cuisine. First published in French in 2002 we owe its existence in English to a remarkable outfit called Ici La Press. This is a boutique publisher was founded by husband-and-wife restauranteurs Bernard Jarrier and Carole Peck who ran the Good News Café in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2000 they teamed up with local typesetter Dennis Pistone to start a brand new publisher with a simply mission: to translate and published great European cookbooks for an American audience.

They had spotted a gap in the market for the treasury of world-class French chefbooks which never made it into English because their authors were thought of as too obscure or esoteric for an American audience. They basically took a bet that great food writing would sell whatever the audience.

Their modus operandi was to take the pick of French-language cookbooks, keep the existing design and layout but translate and update the text and recipes for an American audience. Notable coups included the first Spoon cookbook, Marvellous Recipes from the French Heartland by future three-star chef Regis Marcon, and Vegetables by Guy Martin of Le Grand Vefour. But their greatest triumph was, of course, Michel Bras’ definitive work, Essential Cuisine.

Time and Place in French Cuisine...
Even twelve years on the book feels remarkably modern. One reason is the design. Rather than the soft-focus “restaurant dishes on a plate” prevalent at the time, dishes are arranged in a flowing, vertical style and shot against a pure white background. This technique was unusual at the time, but is now widely used (e.g. in the Mugaritz and Coi cookbooks) to create an absolute focus on the food.

Another pioneering feature comes at the end of the book. At the time almost every cookbook finished with the Dessert section and acknowledgements. But in Essential Cuisine once you are through with the recipes it launches into a fifty-five-page travel-essay-cum-photo-montage which is basically a love-letter from Bras to his countryside. Today this sort of “mood and inspiration” essay is a common feature of any self-respecting chefbook (in Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine it pretty much takes up entire book). But in 2002 this felt entirely new.

Melting middles and monochrome monkfish

And the recipes aren’t bad either. Along with the two variations of Gargouillou, the standout dish is the recipe for Chocolate Biscuit Coulant (p166) - the original “melting middle” chocolate cake. Bras' version is unusual because achieves the molten effect by first freezing a ball of chocolate ganache which is then embedded in the cake batter and baked. This contrasts with most other recipes which simply part-bake the batter so the middle is half-cooked and runny. The advantage of the Bras recipe is a) you don't need to time it perfectly to get the middle right and b) the interior isn't laced with raw flour. 



Also check out the monkfish poached in black olive-oil (p74), a strikingly black/white presentation intended to evoke the light and shade of Aubrac:

Michel Bras' striking olive oil/monkfish combo. Shades of Heston's Salmon & Liquorice...


In short this book is well worth seeking out; even without the Gargouillou it would qualify as a minor classic on the basis of the Chocolate Coulant alone. Although the Ici La Press edition is becoming increasingly hard to track down (listing for well into three figures on Amazon), there is a 2008 reprint from the original French publishers which is easier to find (the restaurant website also has it for €59).

Unfortunately, the intervening years haven’t been as kind to Ici La Press. Despite their early success I’ve seen nothing new from them for ten years. My suspicion is that the globalisation of the online foodie world meant previously undiscovered French chefs suddenly attained a much higher international profile. This attracted bigger publishing houses like Flammarion, Phaidon and Ten Speed Press, leaving little room for a niche publisher like Ici La Press. Today the idea that a Rene Redzepi or Pierre Gagnaire would go with a small typesetting outfit from the backwoods of Connecticut sounds vaguely quaint. Commercial reality but, for lovers of fairy-tales, the food world’s loss.

Postscript: A few more spreads from the book (because it really is that good)


No self-respecting modern(ist) chef would be caught without a childhood-nostaligia based hors d'oeuvre...

Foie gras sandwiches. Because if you're a French chef no matter how many hydrocolloids you have,
some ingredients never go out of fashion...


Michel Bras is a man who would never mix his whites and his coloureds in the washing... :-p

Monday, 20 January 2014

Manresa - An Edible Reflection by David Kinch: The Anticelebrity Chef


David Kinch is the anticelebrity chef.

He doesn’t do aprons. He doesn’t do branded fry pans. He doesn’t do diffusion restaurant lines and would never be caught dead opening in Vegas.

Actually he almost never does TV, although he appeared once on Iron Chef, emerging like a bear from hibernation to give Bobby Flay one of the most brutal maulings in the show’s history (do watch the link; Flay really has no idea what’s about to hit him).

What he does do is quietly get on with running two-michelin starred Manresa, acclaimed by those in the know as one of the greatest restaurants in the Bay Area, if not the World (although unsurprisingly he only charts around #50 among the fashionista-obsessed 50 Best Restaurant Awards. That is not a coincidence).

In short David Kinch is the greatest chef you’ve never heard of.

Thankfully he has done one very important piece of self-promotion.

He’s finally written a cookbook.


The Book

 
Manresa: An Edible Reflection is one of the finest cookbooks written in the last few years. Forget the soft-focus gastro-tint from Noma. Forget self-congratulatory ego-trips from Sat Bains. Forget even the Upcoming Big Fat El Bulli Cookbook (all 2,720 pages of it). If you want an example of how to capture the spirit of a chef in three hundred pages, look no further.

Of course we shouldn’t be that surprised. Kinch’s co-author is Christine Mulhke (pictured at right doing her scary ice-maiden look), who was last sighted working on Eric Ripert’s On The Line. That book is probably the best invocation of a three star restaurant I know of – a perfect balance of cookbook and reportage. In the world of food writers, Mulhke is out of the top draw.

The book is a large (but not stupidly large) format volume. The publisher is Ten Speed Press (who also did the Alinea book, the Charlie Trotter books and, er, Alan Wong’s New Wave Luau). The cover is a detail shot of an abalone, with the ridges and whorls slightly embossed giving a cute 3D effect. The paper is glossy and the photography is suitably lush. In short it wouldn’t stand out from half a dozen other American/Anglo/Antipodean cheffy volumes in the bookshop.

Okay, so far “so what?” But where Kinch – and Muhlke – really stand out is using their three hundred and twenty seven pages to get inside the head of the chef. That’s not as easy as it sounds. There are a lot of cookbooks, even successful ones, which fail miserably at this (just turn to Noma: Time and Space in Nordic Cuisine if you want an example). Manresa, thankfully, is not like that.

Let me show you the difference.


The Manresa Way

A tale of twelve seasons

Kinch’s food starts with the land – unavoidably so because of his unique partnership with Love Apple Farms. This 22 acre farm, located twelve miles from the restaurant has only one customer – Manresa. Kitchen and farm exist in a symbiotic relationship, with the farm planting nine months ahead and the restaurant planning menus nine months ahead so “Ultimately, we’ll both be ready on the same afternoon, when it goes from raised bed to plate in a matter of hours.”

For Manresa the restaurant is as much on the farm as it is the kitchen. Kinch calls Love Apple his “culinary laboratory”, the secret weapon which allows him to experiment and innovate. This closeness gives his food a remarkable sensitivity to ingredients. For Manresa there aren’t just four seasons to cook with, there are twelve.


This is brought out in Manresa’s signature dish called simply Into The Vegetable Garden… (p73). This is basically a riff on Michel Bras famous Gargouillou – a melange of individually prepared vegetables, root shoot and leaf, raw cooked and pureed, 120 components in all each painstakingly arranged on the plate. The concept itself isn’t new but only a restaurant with Manresa’s sensitivity can make it the climax of the tasting menu (you know, the spot on a degustation between the langoustine-wrapped turbot and the first pre-dessert which is normally occupied by a foie-gras stuffed beef fillet with a truffled demi-glace).

The pleasure principle, and California v2.0

Foie Gras and Cumin Caramel. Vegans with nut
allergies look away now.
Note that Kinch is clear that this is not a “farm to table” restaurant. The difference is that he is not driven by politics or the need to make some sort of “more locavore-than-thou” statement (there are plenty of recipes for foie gras despite the state-wide bad, most notably a gorgeous foie gras-cumin crème caramel on p116). All he cares about is producing the best damn food possible. Love Apple gives him is complete control over the vegetables he uses in the restaurant: What is grown, how much is grown and how good it tastes. As he admits later in the book, “I am a hedonist. I am into the pleasure principle… I’m not into the politics of food.”

What Kinch does represent is the second evolution of Californian cuisine. Along with Daniel Patterson at Coi he is at the vanguard of a generation which is moving on from the “tyranny of Chez Panisse”, most famously mocked by David Chang’s “figs on a plate” jibe. Whereas Alice Waters' model revolved around respecting the best ingredients by doing as little to it as possible, now they are trying to play with their food more, because they feel they owe it to the ingredient. The difference is subtle but on the plate it’s as clear as daylight.

A good example of this is a dish called Elemental Oyster (p134). It looks like a simple oyster on the half shell, but each component has been carefully treated to amplify their natural flavours. The oyster is cooked sous-vide still clamped in its shell so it poaches in its own juices. What seems to be the natural juices is actually a cold maceration of konbu and laiture de mer, slightly thickened with a seaweed extract.

This is the new New California cuisine on a plate. He doesn't just present the ingredient "as is", but he doesn't torture it with hydrocolloids in a centrifuge to turn it into something it is not. Rather he applies all the tools and techniques of classical and modernist cuisine to simply make it taste more of itself.



The Evolution of a Chef

Standing on the shoulders of giants

One thing Kinch does well is acknowledge the debt he owes to his mentors. The most obvious is Alain Passard – who has a similar approach taking the “less-travelled road” of one restaurant, a vegetable patch and a literary output which constitutes “a children’s cookbook, a graphic novel, and a vegetable cookbook featuring his own collages.” (check out Bobby Flay’s Amazon page if you want to know what the alternative looks like). Homage is most obviously rendered in the recipe he presents for Passard’s maple infused Arpege Egg (p52), a constant on the Manresa menu. Also don’t miss Passard’s slightly unorthodox omelette technique (p54) – a new way to make a very old dish.

Patrick Bateman would kill to get a reservation... :-p
The other great inspiration is Barry Wine, the free-thinking genius behind New York landmark The Quilted Giraffe. This restaurant symbolised all that was terrible and beautiful about 1980s excess (it even gets name-checked in American Psycho). The most famous dish were the signature Begger’s Purses, filled with Beluga caviar and served on silver pedestals. Kinch includes his version, filled with albacore and lightly smoked vegetables on p58. More important it opened his eyes to Japanese (or at least Wine’s pantagruelian take on it), a sensibility which runs through Manresa to this day.

There are other mentions too (Kinch is nothing if not well travelled). Marc Meneau’s famous Cromsequis of Foie Gras are referenced with the Sweet Corn Croquettes (p114). And we have already mentioned the influence wielded by Michel Bras’ Gargouillou.

Lessons in simplicity

Kinch is well aware of how he adapted from other chefs, and developed. To him the lifetime of a chef has three stages: At first you imitate which, copying from the chefs you work with or idolise. Then you start to assimilate, putting together ideas you have gathered and then moving ahead. But it is only in the third and final stage that a chef finds their own voice and truly begins to innovate.

Duck with Walnut Wine: An exercise in simplicity
When a chef gets to this stage they actually end up cooking the simplest food they have ever cooked because they have confidence in their technique and their style and feel no need to hide behind unnecessary complexity. It’s at this stage that they have developed their own independent style. When chefs get to this stage you can look at a plate of their food and, even without being told, know it was by Achatz, or Ducasse, or Redzepi. Or by Kinch.

Personally I find this take refreshing in a world where chefs seem to be finding fame and acclaim at an ever younger age. They think that, just because they’ve done a stage at Alinea or the Fat Duck they are ready to take on the world. Luke Thomas makes headlines simply for being young. Hot openings like Restaurant Story or the Clove Club are praised to the nines (take my word for it – neither of them are worth the trip). It is, as Kinch says, “chefs trying to impress other chefs”.

David Kinch is the antidote to all of that. To him cookery is a craft, not a get-rich-quick scheme. The food he cooks is uniquely his own. But there are no short-cuts to getting there. As he says in this Google Talk (8:17):
"Nowadays people are attracted to the industry because they feel that it’s incredibly glamorous. Now I can tell you I’m 52 years old and I still work til one thirty am in the morning. There’s nothing glamorous about that. I work weekends. I work nights. I work holidays. I work when you all have time to go out and eat at nice restaurants. That’s what we do."
(By the way, if you listen to the rest of the talk you’ll also find he’s no fan of vegans with nut allergies. But that’s a different story.)


The Food

Of abalone and pigs feet

Of course where this all comes together is on the plate. And as a cookbook this contains a number of remarkable recipes.


The most outstanding are a breath-taking series of shellfish recipes in a chapter called “The Pacific as a Muse”. Particularly noteworthy are the abalone recipes – (Kinch is one of the few Western chefs to regularly work with this challenging delicacy). First he serves it braised, with a delicate local milk pannacotta and an abalone jelly (p155). Then he presents a bold Catalan-inspired pairing with pigs trotters and milk skin (a riotous celebration of texture p158). More classically he sautees it meuniere with a persillade, but one made not with parsley but seaweed (p152). These are dishes of the highest order – innovative but with classical echoes; complex in conception but simple in execution.

The desserts, scattered throughout the book, stand out because they often feature vegetal elements – Candy Cap (mushroom) ice-cream with a Pine-Nut Pudding (p184); wedges of beet with chocolate and sorrel ice-cream (p96). What’s more interesting is the reason why – as he explains, Kinch isn’t trying to be creative for its own sake. Rather it is to make the desserts blend more harmoniously with the progression of the (vegetable-driven) tasting menu.


Another notable recipe is the Strawberry Gazpacho (p202) where refreshing strawberries stand in for ultraripe tomato. This is one of the Manresa classics and I think this is the first time I’ve seen the recipe in print (although Modernist Cuisine features a version, “inspired by” Manresa). And a few pages on the Duck with Walnut Wine (p210) is probably the most time-consuming recipes ever published in a cookbook – you need to begin preparing the sauce 9 months before service dish (start now and you might be able to plate up by Christmas!).

As simple as 1, 2, 3

Many of these dishes can seem quite disorientating at first, but Kinch also provides a really good chapter (“Building a Dish 1, 2, 3”) explaining how he comes up with new dishes. The process is surprising simply
  • First take a single ingredient. A juicy Sun Jewel Melon perhaps.
  • Then find something that goes with it – it could be something that complements it (meat + potatoes). It could be something that contrasts or surprises. In this case some onions, sautéed in homemade butter and pureed with the melon
  • Then add a third element – a bridge that ties the two together. This could be an unexpected ingredient, a modern technique, or even a juxtaposed texture. In this case some soft tofu laced with almond to round out the texture, and picked mackerel and chanterelles to add some acidity.
  • Finally finish the dish with something dynamic – by this is means something about the dish that changes between the plate being set down and eaten. In this case the melon soup, poured tableside onto a salad of melon, mackerel and tofu.

The result is a dish that is “balanced, complex, alive”. Sounds nuts. Somehow it works.

Melon, tofu, onion. Who knew?

Of course it’s not that easy. It’s one thing to say “add something that contrasts” or “find an element that ties this all together”, it’s another thing to have the smarts to figure out what. But as a template this is a really good guide to building a dish because it encourages you to strip the dish back to two or three key contrasts. In my experience the number one failing of haute cuisine chefs is to try too much as once. But for Kinch a dish is complete “not when you can’t add anything else to it, but when you can’t take anything away.”

“He’s never going to be the one to figure out how to make hot ice cream.”

But the most chapter in the book is when Kinch his attitude to shock-driven modernist cuisine and its idolisation of technology.

In particular, he rails against the obsession with sous-vide. If you read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure you might come away with the impression that it’s the most wonderfully extraordinary cooking technique ever conceived. David Kinch begs to differ. To him it’s a confidence trick. It allows you to give cheaper cuts the same luxurious texture as scallops, racks of veal or filet mignon, but in the process it destroys the textural integrity of the ingredient. Lamb to him should have a bit of chew – it shouldn’t be rendered soft, mushy and indistinguishable from the next water-bathed, aroma-free protein:
“Softness and richness are no longer the definition of luxury. Instead, roasting celebrates meat’s inherent characteristics. Texture is at the fore: a slight chew is not a flaw but a facet to relish… Most important, the meat will retain its unique characteristics, whether veal, beef, lamb, chicken, venison or pork-something you don’t get with sous vide. Roasts tastes of what they are, making the choice of quality ingredients paramount-the true fundamental of good cooking.”
Roast lamb. Sous-vide not required (don't tell Thomas Keller!)

Another example is the Pacojet, the industrial-strength micro-grinder which allows you to turn any frozen block of anything into an instant ice-cream. To Kinch what comes out of a Pacojet isn’t ice-cream. There’s no hit of rich cream and eggs. Instead stabilisers like egg white power and dextrose are used which produce a weird ice-cream which doesn’t taste and doesn’t melt.

To be clear he isn’t against new technology per se. As we’ve already seen sous vide is used to gently poach the Elemental Oyster in its juices. Pacojets are used at Manresa to make perfect fruit sorbets or intensely flavoured herb oils. Xanthan gum is used to stablise an emulsion of bone marrow and vegetable broth. He actually can’t shut up about one piece of kitchen tech – his controlled-steam combi oven which lets his program five cycle of roasting without doing a thing.

What he hates though is fetishising technology for its own sake; turning it into an end in itself rather than a means to an end. This is, by far, the most personal part of the book. While everyone else ran amok with anti-griddles and thermomixes, Kinch was ploughing his furrow (quite literally) with Love Apple and cooking the best damn vegetables he could find in the best way he could. And the criticism hurt. As he says:
“I felt like the voice in the wilderness, like people were saying, “Oh, look at David, growing his beets. He’s never going to be the one to figure out how to make hot ice cream.” To keep up, I experimented with all of the new technologies (or at least the ones I could afford). But I realized that the food didn’t taste good. I hated the textures. Why puree a carrot and then rethicken it with a chemical developed for industrial cooking? Sure it has an interesting texture, but it’s not the texture of a carrot, with all of its beautiful imperfections.”
Of course now that El Bulli has faded into history it is precisely Manresa’s style of food that has come to the fore. The restaurants which reap acclaim are places like Noma in Denmark or L’Enclume in England, which take best of innovative techniques, but blend them with an ineffable sense of time and place.

David Kinch was doing that ten years ago.


Why You Should Read This Book

To wrap up, I think there are three reasons why this is one of the finest, and most important cookbooks to be written in recent years.

The first is that this is a portrait of a great (and criminally under-appreciated) chef at the prime of his powers. If you haven’t heard of David Kinch, I hope you have now.

The second is that it’s a masterclass in how to write a chef-driven cookbook. If you want an object lesson in how to capture the spirit of a chef in three hundred pages, then look no further. Ms Muhlke has done a superb job.

The third is that this is a book packed with eternal lessons and insights are applicable to any chef. There will always a new food fad to follow – this book warns us not to get carried away. There will always be the temptation to add one more shaving of truffle/foie-gras/cube of crispy belly pork to a dish – this book reminds us why less is more. Basic principles about balance, restraint and respect for ingredients never go out of fashion. And hopefully neither should this book.

Raw Milk Pannacotta with Abalone and an Abalone-Dashi Gelee, cunningly disguised as a Damien Hirst painting

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal: What's for Dinner?


Apologies for the lack of recent posts. Starting a new job does that to you. Am back now though - and lots more stuff in the pipeline to write about. J.


Dinner by Heston: The Cookbook

Historic Heston is Blumenthal’s second Big Book. Forget the TV spin-offs and the kiddies cook-books. This is the true successor to 2008’s Big Fat Duck Cookbook. It has a similarly commanding bulk and price tag (although the street price has been consistently closer to £80 than the £120 list), which is appropriate as this is the definitive record of Heston’s second Big Restaurant.

Dinner by Heston. Tell you a secret - I actually much
preferred it when it was Foliage. (Wikimedia Commons)
Let’s be clear although it’s never stated this is to all intents and purposes the Dinner by Heston Cookbook. You may have heard of Dinner – it’s Heston’s London gastronomic sextravaganza: holder of two Michelin stars, seventh best restaurant in the world and with Saturday night reservations rarer than a PETA foie gras appreciation party.

Okay a few of the recipes in the book are served at The Fat Duck or The Hind’s Head (Heston’s Bray gastropub), but the vast majority come from Dinner. It includes all the Dinner’s most iconic recipes such as Meat Fruit and the Tipsy Cake. The philosophy of the book and the philosophy behind Dinner are one and the same.

“A glorious culinary heritage”

One thing that’s clear from the introduction is that Heston is most definitely Trying To Make A Point About English Food. His basic argument has two parts:

The first is the belief that England has a culinary heritage which is more than a match for any other nation.
If, as history encourages, you take the long view, our culinary heritage is in fact a glorious one. King Richard II was a noted gourmet who both gave and inspired magnificent feasts. Our invention of the pudding sent foreign visitors into raptures, and our skill at the spit was once the envy of the world…
In short there should be no cultural cringe when facing our cousins from across the channel and two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese! (I actually completely agree with this thesis – a point I made in one of the earliest posts on this blog).

Apparently English food used to look just like this!
(pocket watches optional)
The second is that the renaissance of British food since the lows of the seventies should build on this history by combining new techniques with historical tradition. This leads to the creation of a distinct culinary identity.
Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that we once had an impressive culinary reputation. I want this book to provide a reminder of that fantastic heritage. Over the last decade or so, there has been revolution in British food. As a result, there is a new-found pride in this country’s cooking that has led to us regaining our culinary identity. What you’re about to read is a testament to that, and I hope it also shows how great cuisine comes from a sense of tradition mixed with the spirit of innovation.
(NB – Although Heston says “British” food above, the book itself unashamedly revolves solely English dishes, so any Irish, Scots or Welsh food historians out there are likely to be sorely disappointed.)

The rest of the book is the application of this philosophy in the real world. He takes a series of historical recipes, shows the cultural context behind them, and explains how he has reinterpreted them using modern techniques The dishes were never trying to be authentic reconstructions of past dishes, simply “inspired-by” reinterpretations.

Let’s see how he does…


The Book



A Bloomsbury stunna
A word first of all on the book. It’s a stunner of a volume. Bloomsbury (who also did with original Fat Duck book) have done a great job.

Weighing in at 3.626kg, this is a hefty volume [note to self: when your latest accession weighs as much as a small goose, you know it’s time cut back on your cookbook habit]. The style is decidedly Victorian Gothic Revival: luxuriously decked out in burgundy and gold with the edges hemmed by Tudor-roses. Alongside there’s a matching slip-case, with Heston’s coat of arms picked out in gold. If Augustus Pugin did cookbooks, this is what they’d look like.
  
One quibble – despite their similar presentation it’s a shame that it’s a slightly different size from the original Fat Duck book. A shame - they would have made a handsome matching pair on the bookshelf:



Structural strengths (and one big flaw)
Inside the structure of the book is very simple. After a brief intro outlining the thinking behind the book (qv), it launches straight into the recipes. They are all laid out in the same way:
  1.   A stylised "still-life" style photo of the original historic recipe.
  2. The text of the recipe which acted as an inspiration.
  3. A discussion of some historical or cultural trend which provides context.
  4. An account of how Heston went from original inspiration to modern reinterpretation.
  5. The full recipe for the modern reinterpretation.
  6. A picture of the final dish.

Each recipe follows this order rigidly, (so much so that actually that I could assemble a nice grid in Excel to help me keep track of everything going on – click here to view). It’s definitely not a bad thing given the volume of material; once you've found a recipe you clearly know what yo're in for.

Where I do have an issue is the table of contents, which is pretty much the most unusable version I've ever come across. It tries to pack far too much into one place, and by the time you've figured out if you're reading up, down, left or right you've probably forgotten what you were looking for in the first place:

Probably the worst table of contents in the world. Does someone have Dieter Rams' mobile?

Photography to make you weep
What does deserve praise though is the stunning photography from Romas Foord, particularly the “still-life” compositions of historical recipes. These are richly textured, burnished plates which wouldn’t look out of place on the walls of a Jacobean mansion. In many cases I needed to do a double take to check they were actually photos, not paintings Heston dredged up. In many cases I’m still not sure!

Traditionally Strawberry Tart as photographed by Romas Foord

Ingredients for Lamb Broth a la R Foord. Vegetarians look away now!

Heston’s history lessons
The historical discussions themselves are good value, ranging across an eclectic range of topics, from medieval medical theory to the cuisine of Pall Mall gentleman’s clubs with stopovers to consider early Hanoverian politics, the history of porridge and the use of snails in cookery. Culinary magpies will find plenty to keep them amused.

One theme that jumps out here is the ongoing relationship England has with the outside world: We are an island but Heston shows ours is not an insular cuisine. In Tudor times the Renaissance and the discovery of the New World had a profound influence. Pineapples from the West Indies were the height of eighteenth century refinement. And the Victorian era trade with India brought spices, pickles and chutneys (popularised by among others Mr Crosse and Mr Blackwell).

A related theme discussed is our love/hate relationship with the French. On the one hand much of our national identity and cuisine was defined by opposition to Bourbon and post-Revolutionary France (for more on why we get our kicks from beating on the French I thoroughly recommend Linda Colley’s landmark study Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837). On the other hand it was French chefs like Soyer and Careme who came to London and helped drag our cuisine into the modern age. The French - can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em.

Into the mind of a the chef
However the best part for me is when Heston talks about how he reinterpreted these traditional recipes as modern dishes to be served at Dinner. These sections provide real insight into the creative work of a chef – not only the sources and inspirations, but the endless experimenting used to tune even the finest details (e.g. the unending experimentation to get the texture of the Quaking Pudding just right or make the orange peel on the Meat Fruit look “just so”). Even if you’ve already been to Dinner, these parts will make you see the food there in a new light.

A typical Heston recipe for a quick week-night supper. Although apparently a bit to much for poor Mr Levy...
The Heston recipes themselves are unabashed full-fat restaurant versions of the dishes. Obviously it’s impractical to pull most of these off at home with a centrifuge, a vacuum packer and an awful lot of time (something Paul Levy of the Telegraph rather shrilly takes issue with), but that’s not the point. What you do get from the pages-long recipes is an understanding of why restaurant cooking is profoundly different from home cooking, and how the sum of many small touches and components can create something truly magical. This is a book to imbibe, not to cook from.

Enter the ammanuensis
This bloke  co-writes all of
Heston's books (Linkedin)
It’s probably also worth a call-out at this point to Heston’s superb co-writer Pascal Cariss. The use of barely-credited ghostwriters is a fact of life in the modern food industry - of course no one's going to think Heston wrote over four hundred pages of culinary musings by himself. But I do think the lack of recognition they get is a genuine scandal. We’ll never know how much of the book is Pascal rather than Heston, but I suspect it’s quite a lot.

Heston does (eventually) give him due credit, but unless you get to halfway down the first paragraph of page 426, you'll never know. I do think even a small byline on the spine or even the frontispiece might be a nice idea (ghostwriters occasionally get billing in US cookbooks, but normally only if they are big-name food journos). Surely it won't make that much of a difference to all that gorgeous design?

When does "inspired by" become "vaguely something to do with"?
And while I'm on a critical theme, I do think that on occasion Heston stretches the historical connection/inspiration too far. For example, Rice & Flesh may be inspired by a medieval English conconction, but it looks suspiciously to me like a posh risotto Milanese (right down to the saffron flavouring and using Gualtiero Marchesi’s technique of finishing with acidulated butter). I think to say this foreign plate is forever England pushes it a teeny bit too far.

Also the Tart of Strawberries (lovely though it sounds) has virtually nothing to do with its alleged inspiration – Heston happily admits to swapping out the original cinnamon and ginger for chamomile and mint because he thought it went better. It’s certainly a fine dish which reeks of summer, but again the connection sounds a bit too generic to be convincing.
  
Sauce Robert: Coming soon to a supermarket near you.
And his Sauce Robert nags me. The justification for including this traditional French concoctions seems to be that Antonin Careme (Famous chef. Frustrated architect. Extremely French) had a brief residency at the Brighton Pavilion and therefore anything he cooked is English by adoption (by this rationale it's equally Russian, given he also worked for Tsar Alexander I). To add insult to injury it’s then served alongside an Iberico pork chop (although on a positive note those nice people at Waitrose now sell genuine Heston Sauce Robert in a packet - though no sign of them stocking pluma Iberico anytime soon).

But to be honest these are a minority of the cases. For most of the recipes I can clearly follow Heston’s thought process. And the remainder are not less delicious for the lack of it.


The Recipes


Meat Fruit and other illusions
There are twenty eight recipes in total, starting with Rice & Flesh (c.1390) and ending some six centuries later with Mock Turtle Soup c.1892). The ones that will attract the most attention are the great signature dishes from Dinner – the Meat Fruit and the Tipsy Cake.

The Meat Fruit recipe has been published in various forms before, but this is the first time the full-fat recipe has made an appearance. The original inspiration was actually quite different from the modern dish – Pome Dorres, spit-roast balls of pork mince, covered in a paste of flour and sugar and made to look like apples. As Heston says, his reinterpretation
Was to take advantage of the latest equipment and create a meat fruit that the medieval chef could only dream of. A dish that, were he transported to my kitchen in a time machine, would appeal to his wit and-who knows?-perhaps the cunning in his bowels as well.
The Meat Fruit parfait has a surprising amount in common
with the recipe in MPW's Canteen Cuisine
Leaving aside the bowels of medieval chefs, what we end up with is the iconic foie-gras-chicken-liver-parfait-dressed-as-a-mandarin we know so well.

Actually the parfait itself is relatively undemanding. Although Heston doesn't mention it, I'd put good money on the parfait recipe being nicked from Marco Pierre White (remember Heston trained briefly at Harveys). For a start, the ingredients (see pic right) are pretty much identical. Also the method that follows is pretty much identical: 1) reduce booze and aromatics, 2) chop livers and gently heat (Heston uses sous vide at this point, MPW just takes it to just above blood heat), 3) blitz with lots of butter and egg and finish in a bain marie. There are a lot of alternate ways of making a liver parfait; the fact both have chosen the same way is unlikely to be a coincidence.

The point is that people who go to Dinner and rave about how amaaaazing the Meat Fruit tastes really shouldn't. You could have had the same mouthful at The Restaurant Marco Pierre White nearly twenty years ago. What they are right to rave about is the skill with which the balls of parfait are dressed up as perfect mandarins, particularly the magic on the mandarin jelly "peel". The trick (which Heston stumbled upon by accident) is to freeze the fruit before the second dipping, to create the distinctive dimpled finish:

The Meat Fruit recipe in all its glory (click image for more detail)
Actually the idea of trompe l’oeil – making a dish look like something else – is a recurring theme in this book. It’s also deployed in the Sambocade, where a goat and elderflower cheesecake is made up to look exactly like a log of ash-rolled goats cheese, and in Wassail, an bracing Autumn dessert where a fake apple is fashioned from apple mousse and gel and served alongside caramelised brioche tarts which are charred to look like tree stumps.

It’s seem most exuberantly though Verjus in Egg, a dessert made to look for all the world like a perfectly boiled egg. Now trompe l’oeil eggs are nothing new (for many years Martin Blunos served a famous Boiled Egg & Soldiers dessert at his two-starred Lettonie). However Heston takes it to a new level by crafting the entire egg-shell from paper-thin chocolate (white on the inside, brown on the outside), which is presented whole and then cracked open to reveal a just-poached pannacotta “white” and mandarin-puree “yolk”.

The only ingredient missing from this dish is actually... Egg!
 As I said – don’t try this at home.

A very, very tipsy cake
Tipsy Cake at Dinner
(Wikimedia Commons)
Tipsy Cake is Dinner’s other great creation: a boozy caramelised cake, served in a cocotte with a shard of pineapple from Dinner’s steampunk rotisserie.

This recipe is published for the first time in this book, and it’s a humdinger. Like the Meat Fruit, the basic components are surprisingly simple. The cake itself is little more than a straightforward brioche dough baked in a pot (not dissimilar a German pudding called the Dumph Noodle).

But, as with many recipes in this book, the magic is in the small details. Instead of soaking the brioche in alcohol at the start (too boozy), Heston concocts a cooking cream of sauternes, brandy, demerara and whipping cream which gradually bastes the bread as it cooks. Then to finish the cocottes go on a hot pizza stone to crisp up the bottom, and a final lick of brandy gives the requisite kick.

The full recipe for Dinner's legendary Tipsy Cake.
The funny thing is that when you get to the restaurant it is the smoky roasted pineapple on its gleaming rotiesserie that grabs all the attention for this dish. But for me it is the brioche which is the epitome of the chef’s craft – great cooking is the sum of many small things done right.

Crab loaf, pigs ears and mock turtles
Buttered Crab Loaf. Not a siphon in sight.
Of course there are many other recipes which stand out in this book. The Buttered Crab Loaf for one – basically a savoury French toast made by soaking bread with a creamy crab bisque. It’s one of those things which is just stands on its own as an excellent idea (and owes little or nothing, I might add, to molecular tomfoolery).

Ragoo of pigs ears is another one which just sounds like great fun to eat.  Pigs ears braised in pigs ear sauce on toast topped with crispy pigs ears. Just the thing to terrify your vegetarian friends with.

And that’s not forgetting the puddings. Begging Mr Levy’s pardon, but the Quaking Pudding is nothing more complicated than a simple set custard garnished with some quick-pickled apple. The magic is in fine-tuning the exact proportions for a perfect texture – thankfully Heston has done all the hard work for us. Even the most curmudgeonly of Telegraph hacks should be able to manage that.

However the tour de force is the final recipe – a Mock Turtle Soup which features on the tasting menu at The Fat Duck. Again I think this is the first time the recipe has emerged in print (the dish was developed shortly after the first Fat Duck book came out) – but either way it’s a corker: A three page recipe for an a la minute beef and mushroom consommé served with mock turtle eggs (made of turnip and swede), cubes of ox tongue, cucumber and truffle accompanied by a side of egg, truffle and bone marrow salad sandwiches.

Mock Turtle Soup with various truffley bone-marrowy sandwichy things. :-p
It sums up all that Heston has been trying to achieve with this book. It’s historical. It’s modern. It’s inspired.


Postscript - Will we get Historic Heston on a budget??

One last point; if the £120 list price of this one scares you off remember that a year after publication the £150 Big Fat Duck Cookbook was reprinted as the £40 Fat Duck Cookbook with virtually all of the original content intact. I’ve got no particular insight into whether Bloomsbury do the same with this one (it makes sense to follow the same strategy, but having splashed out for the original I’ll be a bit hacked off if they do), but if you don’t HAVE TO have this volume right now it might be holding off til the Autumn just in case.

Post-post script - A few more pics I've thrown in for good measure

Just because the photography really is that good - especially Romas Foord's retro-still life work: (clicking should open up a larger version):

Historical Still Life: Taffety Tart
Historical Still Life: Powdered Duck
Historical Still Life: Buttered Crab Loaf
Modern Dish: Hash of Snails
Modern Dish: Tart of Strawberries
Modern Dish: Wassail (trompe l'oeil apples and apple tarts charred to look like hewn wood)