"My name is Heston Blumenthal and I run one of the best restaurants in the world," said Heston, as he introduced his new series on Channel 4 last night. Also a restaurant that's been in the news recently, he might have added, given that he was forced to temporarily close it down following a mysterious spate of customer illnesses. It wasn't the last tricky moment. "If we die of poisoning... before we die, can we come and have a meal at your place?" joked a jolly lady in a garden centre, who'd just been invited to sample an edible pot plant. Hmmm, not sure you really want to do that, love, I thought, particularly if you're already in a delicate condition. Fortunately, Heston claims to regard adversity as an opportunity rather than a threat. "I think my creative juices flow best when I'm pulled out of my comfort zone," he said. Given the week he's just had, the creative juices must have been pooling around his legs.
I doubt that Blumenthal is going to have problems filling the reservations book when the Fat Duck reopens because, although the timing of this series could have been a little less awkward, it's still a wonderful advertisement for the kind of edible hallucinations that are his hallmark. From the very beginning, he made no bones about the fact that this was for culinary voyeurs, not would-be participants. "I'm on a food adventure in the extreme," he promised. "So throw away your cookbooks and please don't try this at home."
Not much chance of that with Heston's Victorian Feast, the first dish of a four-part series, which had been modelled on the Mad Hatter's tea party. Lewis Carroll was a molecular gastronome before his time, and his "drink me" potion, which Alice discovers tastes of toffee, hot, buttered toast, custard, cherry tart and turkey, might have been invented to goad Blumenthal into action. Having created a pink gel infused with each flavour, Blumenthal then had to commission a special piece of glassware so that the tastes would remain distinctly layered as it was consumed, a piece of equipment that looked, appropriately enough, like a piece of bespoke drug paraphernalia. "I need to take this recipe and make it properly Victorian," he said, after running up a mock turtle soup, "and to me that means trippy." What "trippy" meant to him was fashioning a dissolvable gold watch out of triple-distilled bouillon and serving up the nectar it produced with a jewel-like mock turtle egg of turnip-and-swede mousse.
The pièce de résistance was an edible Victorian kitchen garden, in which even the gravel (smoked eel, tapioca and waffle crumbs) and the topsoil (dried black olives, crushed grape nuts and chopped pumpkin seeds) could be shovelled up in a spoon. Dotted between the new potato pebbles, Blumenthal had posed crickets and mealworms, deep fried and then injected with a tomato-flavoured paste for authentic splat-in-the-mouth texture. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that this might taste extraordinary rather than actually good, but the team of celebrity guinea pigs who'd been brought along to ooh and ah were obligingly dazzled and vocal. Kathy Lette was so startled by the experience that she actually managed to produce two consecutive sentences without a single double entendre.
You could argue that the whole thing was decadent from soup to nuts, but Blumenthal finished with a special tribute to Victorian depravity, an absinthe-flavoured jelly preceded into the room by a giant, wobbling, green cone with vibrating dildos pressed into its base, a recipe tweak justified by the fact that Victorian doctors had ways of relieving their female patients' inner tensions that probably wouldn't pass muster with the General Medical Council these days. After which, I found, you lay back on the sofa feeling a bit bloated and ever-so-faintly nauseous. Great fun watching him work, though, so I suspect the appetite will have returned by next week.
I don't think William Gladstone would have approved of the dildo-stuffed jelly, but Benjamin Disraeli might have enjoyed it. That's the crude opposition between these two great Victorian statesmen, one a high-minded prig, the other a brilliant political flâneur. It was almost certainly a little more complicated than that, but Gladstone and Disraeli: Clash of the Titans, Huw Edwards's film about the pair, concentrated on sharp contrasts rather than shades of grey. What a great story it is, though, and what flashes of colour it contains. In Gladstone, you have a man so unpopular at the beginning of his adult life that he was assaulted in his college rooms, and so popular by the end of it that he could barely move through the streets for supporters. In Disraeli, you have a man who effectively created the modern Conservative Party by destroying the old one. "He is a burglar of others' intellect," he said in a speech that brought down a government. And he was talking about his own party's leader at the time.Reuse content