Last year, Owen Sheers spent National Poetry Day reading verse to passing shoppers in Bolton. A nice man held a plastic bag over his head to keep off the rain. This year, he's sipping champagne at one of the best restaurants in the world. It's clearly, at least sometimes, a hard life being a poet.
The 30-year old Welshman, who was recently selected as one of the top 20 Next Generation Poets, is taking time out of his busy schedule to explore the relationship between poetry and food. He has left the little cottage next to Wordsworth's, in Grasmere, Cumbria, that comes with his post as writer-in-residence for the Wordsworth Trust, and is on his way to a poetry tour of Europe and a literary festival in Berlin.
His first prose work, The Dust Diaries (Faber, £16.99), an unusual mélange of memoir and creative non-fiction, was published to great acclaim earlier this year. The golden boy of poetry (well, darkly handsome, actually) is clearly having the time of his life. And now he is spending two days at The Fat Duck in Bray with Heston Blumenthal, the chef whose third Michelin star has shot him into the culinary super-league. Poetry residencies just don't get jammier than this.
From the outside, The Fat Duck looks like a modest cottage that might just house a family of four. Inside, it manages to be both cosy and palatial, a haven of starched linen, gleaming silverware and handsome French waiters all rushing to shower you in luxury and charm. Eric, the maître d', has already offered me champagne, which I've refused. It doesn't take long for me to crack.
Sadly, I couldn't get here in time to watch the poet and chef bonding in the kitchen. Instead, I've had to make do with dinner in the restaurant with the man our picture desk described as a "dreamboat". He will tell me about the residency - part of a nationwide poetry programme of food-related activities - as we force down the 17-course "tasting menu" accompanied by wines so fine that they each provoke a little lecture from the sommelier. It's sometimes a hard life being a journalist, too. So, I ask Sheers, sipping my champagne, isn't it just a gimmick? Everyone loves food, of course, but poetry? I can see, I add, why food would be a popular theme for National Poetry Day. But surely there's no real connection between the two.
"I was very anxious about the gimmick factor," confesses Sheers. "I've had my fair share of standing in shopping centres next to huge fridges covered in magnetic poetry. People think you're preaching or something. And initially," he adds surprisingly, "I said no. But when Heston sent through all the information he's got on his website, then I got interested. I was really enjoying his phrases like 'flavour memory' and 'mouth feel', which is the texture you get. There were whole passages when he's writing about food that could apply to poetry."
Sheers has already learnt the genesis of the snail porridge that we'll be having tonight. "It came about," he explains "because of a discussion about how people like their porridge - which started this chain reaction. There's a building-up, and then, at some point, there's this process of editing. Every single artist I've spoken to has wanted to talk about the process of editing. It's sort of what I'll be doing here. I'll be spending two days just absorbing, and I'll use only 10 or 15 per cent of what I gather. The other 90 per cent is, like an iceberg, weighed underneath."
It's funny he should be talking about ice, because at this point we're interrupted by a waiter bearing a cauldron of what looks like dry ice. "It is liquid nitrogen," he declares in his extremely sexy French accent. "It is like 'Arry Potter, non?" I'm just thinking that it's like Peter Pan on ice, when he dips a spoonful of something yellowish into the magic potion and tells me to put it, whole, in my mouth. I must not bite it, I am told firmly. It is extremely cold, and my mouth tingles with a lemony zing that has me longing for more. "To cleanse the palate," says the waiter, with a radiant smile.
I'm beginning to understand why Blumenthal's food is often described as "molecular gastronomy". As each tiny, exquisite course is set beneath our greedy gaze, we're quizzed on our responses. Did we notice that the orange jelly was purple and the beetroot jelly was orange? What did we think of the Pommery grain mustard ice cream? Or the snail porridge? Or the sardine on toast sorbet?
It's all delicious, thank you, we keep repeating, like a mantra. The chef has produced such a theatrical, surprising and, to use Sheers's phrase, "bloody gorgeous" experience that we, the supposed wordsmiths, are lost for words. "Heston's aware", Sheers tells me, fresh from his afternoon chat in the kitchen, "that there's a constant calibration of the senses, and in any good piece of writing, you're doing the same thing.
"He's interested," he continues, between bites of his poached breast of anjou pigeon, "in how taste changes if you give it a different colour or a different sound. If you have bacon, the sound of sizzling is crucial to it. Writers are playing with perception all the time and leading you into a different place or an emotional state of some kind." Yes, indeed. My emotional state is tending towards the tipsy, not helped by the sight of a waiter bearing towards us with two pairs of headphones.
"'Eston would like you to put these on!" he instructs us, and, giggling, we obey. It's a weird experience, a cross between some ultra-hip house club and the echoing cave in A Passage to India. The more I giggle, the louder the echoes get, until I realise that it's all - laughter, chewing, breathing etc - being woven into some sophisticated sound collage that provides an extraordinary counterpoint to the food. Blumenthal, finally finished in the kitchen, bounces over. So how did the different sounds affect our taste of the pistachio scrambled egg? And did we spot the trick of the orange and carrot tuile and the beetroot jelly? "It took me a year", he adds, "to put that on the menu."
Bucking his questions, I reply with some of my own. Isn't it, I ask, a kind of postmodern game? And is it science or art? And does it matter? "You could say that even art is a science," replies Blumenthal thoughtfully. "What's happening in art is that there's a connection to millions of brain cells which give you an emotional response to some text or painting or even smell. Or you can argue that art is only art because of the emotions involved, and art is subjective." Right. And why did he agree to this residency? What, apart from a poem, was in it for him? "Every now and then something pops up here and this just seemed quite unusual," he confesses. "I am," he adds, with another flash of that sweet smile, "curious".
There is little doubt about Blumenthal's curiosity or the extent of his quest for perfection. After nearly five hours of eating his exquisite food, Sheers and I agree that he is the Seamus Heaney of the food world. Or perhaps, more appropriately, the John Ashbery or the Paul Muldoon - two poets whose work combines dazzling erudition with postmodern playfulness and wit. We're both reminded of TS Eliot's comment that "poetry communicates before it is understood". The more you read a good poem, the more you get out of it.
The shadow of Eliot, in fact, looms over this poetic-culinary celebration in another, more concrete way. The Welsh poet Gillian Clarke will be spending a few days in East Coker, the village where Eliot is buried. In addition to a stint in the kitchen of the Helyar Arms, Clarke will take part in a number of workshops and spend time with local farmers and suppliers. For her, food, like poetry, "is the mark of a civilised society. You take the raw ingredients and turn them into something of a higher order."
John Hegley, who is doing a residency with Farma (the National Farmers' Retail & Markets Association) is, as usual, a little more down to earth. He has already spent a day at Sunnyfields Organic Farm, roaming around the fields and taking a closer look at root vegetables in their natural habitat. "Watching the farmer pull up his spuds, carrots and beetroots," he tells me, "I was constantly amazed at the density of the yield of this soil. Poetry is about a similar density of yield from the language. The words", he adds with a twinkle, "are concocted and crafted to a deeply sustaining nosh".
POEMS BY OWEN SHEERS: A FIRST RESPONSE
Strung not cut, this bird,
like a bulb of dark red wine,
holds its own stopped blood.
Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse
Take this comet's heart
fragile as a bird's blown egg -
break its ice flow,
feel the arctic exhale in your head.
Today is National Poetry Day (www.poetrysociety.org.uk). 'Poetry on a Plate: the National Poetry Day 2004 Recipe Poem Book' is available from www.saltpublishing.com at £7.99Reuse content