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 consomm√© 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.

EDIT (Jul-14): Yup looks like I was spot-on. Cut-price version just announced - $65 vs. $135 for the original! Out in October...

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)


  1. I just stumbled upon your blog and I am having a blast! Thanks for all these wonderful reviews.

  2. What a wonderful post, thanks for sharing! Food history is an under rated aspect of history and I also love your inclusion of his ghost writer!

    1. Thanks.

      Ghost writers are criminally under-appreciated. Although I guess that is partyl the point...