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Wednesday 22 February 2012

  Did you know that in Ireland we consume on average over 400 grams per day of beer against the world average of around 80 grams per day.  On the good side we apparently also consume over 200 grams per day of oranges against the world average 50 grams.  We also consume almost 300 grams per day of wheat and over 300 grams of potatoes in comparison with approximately 40 grams and 90 grams respectively world wide.  I guess the spuds are no surprise but we also eat more beef, poultry, oats, cream, tea, offal, cheese, wine and liquor, and other citrus fruits.  All of this information is part of EDIBLE, an exhibition running at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.   The exhibition serves up “a taste of things to come”, a combination of ‘mad scientist’ food and arty interpretations.   EDIBLE explores how we reshape the planet through the food choices we make, with curators Cat Kramer and Zack Denfeld, from The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, assembling a diverse group of artists, scientists, restaurateurs and foodies whose ideas are challenging our perception of what the word edible really means.  The idea is to determine what the dinner plate of the 21st century can tell us about ourselves, and what the dinner plate of the future will be.  

Dublin is the European City of Science 2012 and this is an exhibition about food like nothing else we have ever seen before.  At EDIBLE you can crawl through the ultimate bouncy castle ‘Gas Bag’ being the interior of a giant inflatable stomach, inhale a mist of mutant peppermint, sample the biodiversity of edible Irish seaweed, and discover how insects might just be the food of the future!  You can experiment in the food lab to find out how and why we eat, and if you are a ‘super taster’.  They have twice daily feeding times where for €3 you will have a chance to sink your teeth into a vegan version of the “cruelest recipe ever invented”, dine on kimchi quesadilla and sample other specially created recipes.   They are also running fortnightly curated four course meal events (€25-€40).  <ep>


One of the people over for the opening of EDIBLE was Scott Heimendinger of Modernist Cuisine – the Art & Science of Cooking – who have produced a six volume, 2438 page tome with 1.1 million words and 3216 pictures.   At €450 a pop they are not exactly dishing out review copies so instead they issue a Reviewer’s Guide with salient plus points, so it is not exactly easy to get a real feel for the book.  To put it in its simplest layman’s terms this book would be in the style of food inspired and created by Ferran Adria, the renowned Spanish chef, and Heston Blumenthal – lots of scientific analysis of food processes, liquid nitrogen – you know that quick freezing magician’s tricks style ‘smoke’.  Molecular cooking on wheels!  This tome is the brainchild of Dr Nathan Myhrvold of The Cooking Lab in Seattle, Washington.  The first Chief Technical Officer at Microsoft, Myhrvold is now CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions. Co-authors of the book are Chris Young, who opened the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck working under Heston Blumenthal,  and Maxime Bilet who has also worked with Blumenthal’s development team.   <ep>




Amongst other things, Modernist Cuisine tells you that expensive pots and pans are not worth it; deep fried food tastes best when the oil is older; baking is really all about drying the food; and that traditional methods require both tremendous skill and good luck to achieve perfect doneness.  In Cooking Sous Vide, the authors present an ency­clo­pe­dic guide to this increas­ingly pop­u­lar tech­nique in which food is vac­u­um packed in bags then cooked in a water bath or a water­va­pour oven. More than 80 pages are devoted to dis­cussing the ben­e­fits of this highly flex­i­ble way to cook.  <ep>


Modernist Cuisine is being mentioned as the new Escoffier or Larousse bible but, how relevant is it to the home cook, I asked Heimendinger, who is also known as the Seattle Food Geek?  “I wouldn’t be so bold to say that these books are going to replace Escoffier, but I would say that if Escoffier were around today this is the type of book he would write.  It’s Escoffier like in that it is encyclopedic in its coverage and we care very deeply about understanding what’s happening during cooking processes and, unlike Escoffier, we have access to tremendous technology with one of the most sophisticated kitchens in the world with gear that no one else has all together in the same place.  We also have the time and funding to go way into detail in a way that Escoffier never could.  You might have some intuition of how much flour you have to add to your stock or your soup to get it to thicken up properly but could you tell me how Xanthan Gum, or how much Locust Bean Gum (from the seeds of the Carob tree), or in combination, what those things can do.  For most chefs the answer is ‘no’ because they are relatively unfamiliar ingredients.  Rather than make those people go through trial and error, we have done that for you.”    That sounds all very commercial, how relative is that to the average person in their kitchens and why should people pay €450 for this book.?   “I think it is absolutely completely relevant.  There are other people who take a different view, who abide by a heuristic that says I don’t cook with anything that your grandmother wouldn’t cook with, but I don’t know that that makes a lot of sense as well intentioned as that may be.  I wouldn’t go to my grandmother’s physician because there have been in advances in medicine in the last 100 years so why would I use my grandmother’s cooking techniques.  When you make muffins you probably don’t hesitate to put in baking soda, your muffins call for baking soda, your grandmother used baking soda, nothing strange about that but baking soda is one of the most processed refined ingredients – there is no baking soda plant that you shake off and you get the right powder – these hydrocolloids (aka gums) – sound exotic because we are just not used to using them, but they are no more exotic than baking soda or iodised salt or refined sugar.  They are just new to us so lots of people have reservations.   Agar Agar is a great example; it is used for making gels, and you can make hot gels with it.  The Japanese have been using it for hundreds of years- it is a vegetarian gelatin.  I think people have this reaction, especially with the Slow Food Movement and well intentioned movements that talk about simplifying our cooking to avoid additives to avoid preservatives, I don’t believe that any ingredient is inherently bad, I believe there are ingredients that are used in bad ways.”  


Give me 5 points as to why somebody should buy this book or switch on to Modernist Cuisine?


“1. If anybody has curiosity about cooking they should buy this book.  We talk about things in the book that most people will not be able to do at home maybe ever, at least for the next ten years or so that require very expensive or exotic equipment but we fundamentally believe that even if you don’t have the equipment., its interesting to know how those things work.”


2.  “We’ve got amazing dishes, some of which can be prepared quite simply in a home kitchen but are made better with a fundamental understanding of what’s going on.  We do a pressure cooked caramelized carrot soup.  Now, a Pressure Cooker is not exotic and probably something our grandmothers did have.  But did you know that inside a pressure cooker you could create browning reactions by altering the Ph balance of foods in your pressure cooker.  So, for our carrot soup recipe its carrots  and butter and carrot juice and you add a little bit of baking soda, and by changing the ph balance we cause the carrots to brown in the temperature of the pressure cooker, not just brown on the surface but all the way through giving an incredible caremelised carrot flavor better than even putting them in an open oven.  It’s just by the fundamental understanding of science that we are able to produce a dish that is so fantastic.”


3.  “The photography is fantastic, with cutting edge techniques we literally cut cookware in half.  It is illustrative and descriptive of the processes that are taking place.   Most people haven’t seen what it is like to be inside a pot watching it boil or to cut a rock in half and see how the flames behave.  These are gorgeous in their own right but they help understand the processes at work.”


4.  “When we started this process we went and talked to traditional book publishers and they all said first you are crazy, and second, maybe you should publish 3000 copies and you will sell them over a couple of years, but we have blown sales projections.  Nathan put his heart and soul and much of his money into this and his philosophy was ‘you know the publishers say can you figure out where the sweet spot is for the cook book market and you try to target something at that price and then you have to compromise paper and is it colour or not colour.  He said, that’s not what I am going to do, I am going to do a book that I want to do and then I’m going to hope that people who are like me are going to want to buy it, and it turns out that that is how its been.”


5.  “The recipes themselves.  We have over 1500 recipes.  Granted I don’t have the standard kitchen.  If you have a Sous Vide machine that opens up a lot of recipes in the book.  We use a lot of vacuum sealing because it is a very convenient way to cook and store food.   Some things require liquid nitrogen or a chamber vacuum sealer.   Its not lip service that we call it the Art & Science of cooking we think there is tremendous crossover, the images on their own are breathtaking. “


This would be a bit complicated for my scrambled egg and toast but it will be the ultimate status symbol for chefs and worldwide food geeks – it is amazing – roll over Mrs. Beeton!


Modernist Cuisine is published by Taschen ISBN 978-0-9827-6100-7 and is available at EDIBLE and through