Snail porridge? It's a matter of taste

The world's best chefs are embracing molecular gastronomy - the combination of odd ingredients to stunning effect. But can you cook it at home, asks Christopher Hirst

After an
amuse-bouche of codfish foam with sea-urchin mousse, we propose a starter of snail porridge followed by yeast soup with cinnamon and lemon ice-cream. No, sir, the ice-cream is not a dessert. It goes with the soup.

After an amuse-bouche of codfish foam with sea-urchin mousse, we propose a starter of snail porridge followed by yeast soup with cinnamon and lemon ice-cream. No, sir, the ice-cream is not a dessert. It goes with the soup.

Then we have an entrée of white onion risotto with parmesan air and espresso. Yes, sir, that's parmesan air, a foam made of parmesan. No, sir, the coffee is part of the risotto. We still have the cheese course to come - a mini parmesan ice-cream sandwich - followed by desserts of smoked bacon and egg ice-cream and cucumber sorbet.

Though these dishes may bring to mind the cuisine of Fungus the Bogeyman, they are currently being served by the world's most acclaimed chefs. Ferran Adria (codfish foam) of El Bulli, near Barcelona, has been described by the French gastronomic god Joël Robuchon as "the best cook on the planet".

Heston Blumenthal (snail porridge) is chef/proprietor of the Fat Duck at Bray, one of only three British restaurants to hold the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars. Thomas Keller (cucumber sorbet) is chef/proprietor of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, recently voted the world's No 1 restaurant by a panel of 100 international experts in Restaurant magazine.

Anthony Flinn (white onion risotto with parmesan air and espresso) won best new restaurant in the Rémy awards this week for his Leeds eatery, Anthony's.

In the kitchens of these gastro-physicists, you are as likely to encounter a tank of liquid nitrogen as an egg whisk. Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck is about to become Britain's first restaurant with its own laboratory, complete with "multi-sensory tasting room" to analyse the effects of sound and vision on our taste buds. (Apparently, eating a banana while hearing a crunching noise is particularly disorienting because a "forgotten sense" prevents us from closing our teeth on anything that our ears tells us will be brittle.) Official recognition for Blumenthal's scientific obsession has come from the Biotechnical and Biological Science Research Council, which is funding a full-time PhD student to research "hydrocolloid systems with unusual mechanical and thermal properties" (ice-cream, jelly and gravy to you and me) in the Fat Duck's lab.

The term "molecular gastronomy" was coined in the Eighties by the late Nicholas Kurti, an Oxford physics professor who pioneered the investigation of science in the kitchen.

Like many other chefs, Blumenthal is uneasy about the "molecular cooking" tag. "It's not the best term," he told me. "People think you need a doctorate in nuclear physics to work here. In fact, molecular cooking is not about unusual combinations or difficult dishes, it's about chemical and physical combinations. Physics enters the kitchen when we ask, why does a soufflé rise? Or why does a custard thicken? Chemistry comes in when we ask, why does rosemary work with lamb? Why does a tannin-rich wine work with fatty food? Molecular cooking is a tool just like a food processor. People who see a restaurant doing unusual food tend to think, 'That must be molecular cooking', but it's just about understanding science in the kitchen."

Warming to his theme, Blumenthal mused on the vexed topic of custard. "When you're making a custard, it's useful to know that egg protein comes in the form of little strands. As you cook them they coil up. Cook them took much and they stop being custard and they become scrambled egg. Same thing happens with meat. As you raise the temperature, the proteins tighten up and squeeze the meat so the juices run. That's why overdone meat is always dry. Contrary to popular belief, browning meat does not keep in the juices. When science explains this, it becomes obvious."

Blumenthal, who is famous for such startling dishes as salmon poached with liquorice, bacon and egg ice-cream, sardine-on-toast sorbet and meringue "cooked" in liquid nitrogen at your table, intends to produce reliable stalwarts of British cuisine when he expands his operation into the Hind's Head pub, next door to the Fat Duck. "We'll be doing potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie and treacle pudding, but it will still be doing molecular cooking," he insists.

"For example, how can you make the cream lighter in a trifle? It is just about scientific principles, it is not about unusual combinations. My snail porridge dish - that's my cooking - not molecular gastronomy."

It is, however, evident that experimentation holds an irresistible appeal for the new science-based school of chefs. Ferran Adria shuts up shop for six months of every year in order to prepare a new slate of dazzling taste sensations for the lucky patrons of El Bulli. (The name is Spanish for bulldog, though the creature has yet to appear as an ingredient.) The restaurant, which can seat just 50 diners for lunch and dinner, opens in April, though you can book by phone from 20 January. In fact, that's the only day you can book. Every seat is taken by the evening. Next January, the competition for a place may be more intense than ever, since Adria is contemplating serving dinner only.

Gourmets are prepared to suffer such torments of anxiety in order to tackle El Bulli's 32-course tasting menu. The doll's house-sized portions include pink caviar that turns out to be tiny melon balls, barnacles with tea foam, envelopes of squid filled with coconut and ginger butter, monkfish liver with tomato seeds, a tiny champagne glass filled with minted pea-soup that is hot at the top and cold at the bottom, a bread puff imbued with warm olive oil accompanying a tiny mug of tomato sherbet, almond ice-cream with garlic and tamarind, freeze-dried foie gras shaved over consommé ...

For those who fancy laying on this prodigious, if diminutive spread at home, two El Bulli cookbooks are available. The latest, covering Adria's inventive output from 1998 to 2002, will set you back £355, though an earlier volume is a mere £157.

A friend who attended a cookery display by the Spanish maestro in London earlier this year recalled that it wasn't the most riveting of entertainment. "There wasn't much humour," he complained. "I stuck it out for six hours, but I can only remember a dish of quail's egg yolk encased in caramel."

The 24-year-old chef Anthony Flinn, who worked at El Bulli before opening his restaurant in Leeds, gained rather more from his association with Adria. Though not customarily regarded as the most gastronomically adventurous of eaters, Yorkshire folk are packing the place to sample Flinn's roast breast of duck with olive oil and chocolate bonbons and a dessert of fig and black olive tatin with brie ice-cream.

Mr Flinn's father and business partner, also called Anthony, has said his son did not like to be associated with molecular gastronomy. "He works with the natural flavours rather than adding something chemical to make it whizzy."

This seems ever so slightly to miss the point about science in the kitchen. The new culinary obsession with understanding processes stems largely from the work of a single man. Harold McGee is not a chef but a science writer based in Palo Alto, California. He trained in physics and astronomy, before taking a degree in English literature. In his masterpiece McGee on Food & Cooking (Hodder, £30), he has striven to break down the "neatly compartmentalised" worlds of science and cooking. Heston Blumenthal says it is "the book that has had the greatest single impact on my cooking".

The latest, massively expanded edition of his book runs to 884 pages. McGee is not only astonishingly comprehensive, he is also admirably comprehensible. Read McGee and the mystery of mayonnaise will be dispersed: "It's the sauce most tightly packed with oil droplets - as much as 80 per cent of its volume is oil. The cook can produce more stable small droplets by whisking a portion of the oil into just the yolks and salt to start ... the salt causes the yolk granules to fall apart into their component particles ... Though cookbooks often say that one yolk can only emulsify a half-cup or a cup of oil, this just isn't true. A single yolk can emulsify a dozen cups of oil or more."

McGee's unique amalgamation of wit, knowledge and clarity of expression is applied to seaweed, cakes ancient and modern, the enzymatic browning of cut fruits, structure of grains, flavours of cooked alliums, the weak connective structure of fish, muscle fibre types in meat, stringiness in melted cheese, couscous ("an elegantly simple pasta"), toxins in wood smoke ... McGee offers witty, profound enlightenment about everything you're ever likely to cook or, indeed, eat.

On the acknowledgements page of his book, McGee mentions two chefs who "invited me into their kitchens - or laboratories - to experience cooking at its most adventurous". One is Heston Blumenthal, the other is Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California and, more recently, the Per Se restaurant in Manhattan. Keller's 15-course tasting menu will set you back $150 (£90) per head, if, by some miracle, you manage to book a table at Per Se. Dishes includes cappuccino of forest mushrooms served with mushroom-flavoured biscotti, cauliflower panna cotta (customarily a blancmange-like dessert) and thyme-infused ice-cream.

Molecular cooking is essentially about the creation of flavours and textures that will temporarily transport our taste buds to a happier world. If this is achieved with a spot of showmanship, it means a crowded restaurant.

Instead of fighting for a table at the Fat Duck at Bray, I asked Heston Blumenthal to e-mail one of his signature dishes to me. The first problem with snail porridge (apart from the name) was getting hold of the snails. Selfridges turned out to have some in stock, but the dispatch of the snails was appropriately tardy because the entire store was in a tizzy due to a visit by Madonna. After a five-hour struggle, my snail mail eventually arrived.

Then came the hard part. As we have seen, the dishes evolved by the new breed of culinary alchemists are not the sort of thing you can knock up in five minutes. Surveying the 26 ingredients - the major elements were three dozen plump, glistening snail corpses which resembled items expelled from a giant's nostrils and Scott's Traditional Porage Oats - I was not encouraged. The dish first demanded the creation of snail butter (nine ingredients), then snail cooking stock (eight ingredients) and finally the combination of these two elements with the porridge. "Beat in the snail butter," the recipe urged, but then warned: "Be careful, if it's too hot the butter will split, causing the porridge to become grainy."

There was an unexpected complication in the final stage of the recipe. This began: "Roughly chop the snails and set aside", but the snails were never mentioned again. In order to resolve this omission, I had to call the Fat Duck while the kitchen was in the midst of service, possibly preparing snail porridge in Bray. It turned out that the grey, grainy porridge was to be topped by layers of shredded Parma ham, chopped snails, thinly sliced fennel and a dressing of vinegar and walnut oil.

Rather gingerly, I took my first mouthful. With strata that were successively savoury, sweet, snaily, (a good blast of the protein flavour known as unami), crunchy and tart, the combination was nothing less than magical. The molecules of my tongue adored it.

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