Dream machine: The Thermomix weighs, chops, cooks - and even washes itself up
No wonder top chefs are fans. Lisa Markwell puts it through its paces.
Need another gadget? If you read John Walsh's feature a few weeks ago about the surfeit of stuff in his kitchen with a rueful smile, you probably think not. I love a whizzy machine and – perhaps this is part of my addiction – so many now come in bright colours and groovy retro designs. As a result I have rather too many shiny red bits of kit on my kitchen counter (to match the shiny red kitchen. I blame Ikea). The worst offenders are objects that do only one thing, or prepare something that you actually don't make that often – hello pasta maker, hello fish kettle.
Then I noticed a machine popping up on MasterChef, and in the kitchens of one or two professional chefs. Squat and sturdy, with a control panel to rival Nasa, it looked excitingly bossy. The name Thermomix entered my consciousness.
But it's not sold at John Lewis, and the company website is, to put it kindly, less than elegant. Could this really be something I needed in my life, or a passing fancy such as the, ahem, rowing machine or the sewing machine?
Being a writer, I'm in the lucky position, sometimes, of trying before I buy. Janie Turner, who distributes the German brand Thermomix in this country, brought one round for me to have a play with. Janie stumbled upon the machines in 2001 when she took her 14-year-old vacuum cleaner back to its maker, Vorwerk, for a service. "At reception I saw a photograph of this machine," she remembers. "I didn't know that the company made anything other than vacuums, so I asked what it was." Since the machine she owned was a workhorse, she decided to try the Thermomix.
And she was sold. She and her husband became the UK distributors of Thermomix, and 12 years on, she has a growing team of demonstrators and fans, several themed cookbooks and some big-name chefs who have put their names to the product (Alan Murchison of Michelin-starred L'Ortolan and La Bécasse has devised recipes; Heston Blumenthal has named it as one of his kitchen essentials).
She is – of course – a passionate advocate of the machine and a two-hour demonstration from her is a blur of amazing techniques and endless silky-smooth purées, light-as-a-feather foams and two different kinds of crème pâtissière. It is no surprise that Thermomix products are sold only by demonstration rather than via shops – because their performance belies their appearance.
After Janie had left, I fell into a frenzy of food prep. A luscious blueberry-and-mango sorbet in four minutes; vibrant green-pea purée for adding to a risotto in six minutes; and – best of all – uniformly smooth pasta dough that made delicious spaghetti after a few turns through my pasta roller (glad I didn't jettison that gadget).
Yes, it takes some getting used to – it has more function buttons than my car. And despite there being only a base, a jug, a two-part lid and a stirrer, they're all a bit fiddly. Without Janie's firm hand, I'm a bit anxious about sticking a plastic spatula into a machine with blades spinning at up to 10,000 rpm.
No wonder the chefs who use the Thermomix extol the virtues of its blending power. Sat Bains, whose two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Nottingham is known for the inventiveness of its cuisine, says: "I love them, great for blending and cooking, I've used one for 13 years! Serious piece of arsenal." Michael Wignall of the Michelin-starred Michael Wignall at The Latymer restaurant tells me: "I use Thermomix at home and we have two at work. We use them for making the smoothest white polenta ever!"
Not all chefs agree: recently on Twitter, Bains and chef Paul Foster of Tuddenham Mill had an exchange about whether a Thermomix or a Vita-Prep blender made a smoother purée, with Foster resolutely in favour of the blender. But since the former also does heating, kneading, and myriad other jobs, for the domestic cook it's a harder-working resident on the kitchen counter.
And 70 per cent of Therms are sold to people like you and me, not professional chefs. I was surprised by that statistic because it's such a resolutely professional-looking bit of kit. But it has now been on my kitchen counter for two weeks and I have grown used to its, er, looks.
And even learnt to love some of it. When one little click detaches the blades from the jug for cleaning, I notice that each of the four is slightly different and at a staggered height. That is a perfect piece of design. The jug has liquid quantities on its inside surface, and the little insert on the lid? That holds exactly 100ml. And if you invert it, there are little notches to make drizzling – for instance – oil into a mayonnaise, a cinch.
It also acts as a weighing scale. So you can dump the sugar in, check the weight, reset at zero, dump the butter in, and so on – cake making without much washing-up (there's a butterfly whisk for perfect mixing). Got to love that. In fact, even if you're not using the machine, you could put a pan or whatever on top of the jug, set the scales to zero and weigh into that.
My particular breed of laziness pertains to not using the correct ingredient if I haven't got it – something approximating it usually works. But I'm loving the work of the machine in, for instance, turning castor sugar into icing sugar in a two-minute blitz, or cinnamon sticks into powder in seconds.
And then there's that reverse button, which turns the frenzied chopping blades into gentle stirrers, so you can put your feet up while it attends to your risotto or whatever. Ditto the kneading function, should you be hankering for the bit of a bread machine that actually is helpful.
So, it does the hard work – and it saves you money, by making short work of the kind of stuff (sauces, stocks, soups, etc) that we're all tempted to buy ready-made. There's also, arguably, a health consideration, because it is an ace at steaming (a Varoma two-tier basket for atop the lid means steaming an entire meal from rice to meat to veggies is a doddle), and is so high-powered it means making fresh stuff is easy. I made a single serving of carrot-and-coriander soup in the time it would have taken me to walk to and from the Tesco Metro at the end of my road.
But – finally – let's get down to the real financial nitty-gritty. The Thermomix TM31 retails at £885, which is a vast outlay for anyone, no matter how excited they are by new toys.
Every person who's been to my house since the Therm arrived has gone slightly pale when I tell them the price. But putting all my other small appliances on the table for the picture accompanying this feature was instructive. Together, they added up to, yup, £800 – and each has one, or perhaps two functions. The new machine has at least 10. Of course, my collection was bought over years and has given me years of good service (KitchenAid makes particularly sturdy kit).
But if I were a) getting married or b) starting to equip a kitchen from scratch, I'd want one. We're living in ever-smaller houses, with less room for stuff. We're also in thrall to fancy culinary skills, thanks to celebrity chefs. I'm tempted, for the first time, to make éclairs thanks to that sublime chocolate crème pâtissière. Want to smear a beetroot purée across your guests' dinner plates? Look no further. And if, like me, you find you've got a gas-ring traffic jam, it's a brilliant extra-heat source/pair of hands. Or if you have no puds to hand, with a pack of mango slices or raspberries in the freezer, an egg and some sugar, you can make a ritzy, creamy Italian sorbet in seconds.
Perhaps the final word is an inadvertent piece of advice from this month's Vogue, in which a writer bemoans that designer shoes have shot up in price from "the good old days" when they cost £350. "Now they're £650, mounting to £2,000." I'd never be so insane to spend that amount on shoes, but applying the "cost-per-wear" model so beloved of fashion fans to the machine, I reckon within a year I'd have saved the initial outlay in food costs. And, unlike shoes, a plain grey-and-white machine never goes out of fashion…
The Thermomix TM31 is £885 and includes a 300-recipe cookbook, courier delivery, and a two-hour demonstration at home. UK Thermomix, 01344 622 344, UKThermomix.com
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