Chemistry lessons in the kitchen

Heston Blumenthal thinks the best way to give children an appetite for chemistry is to bring the kitchen into the classroom.Genevieve Roberts gets a lesson in culinary alchemy at the Fat Duck
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Why do vegetables retain their colour when boiled? Why does food stick to pans when it's cooking, and how quickly does liquid nitrogen turn cream, egg and sugar into ice cream?

Why do vegetables retain their colour when boiled? Why does food stick to pans when it's cooking, and how quickly does liquid nitrogen turn cream, egg and sugar into ice cream?

Science lessons were never like this in my day.

Heston Blumenthal, chef and owner of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, named the best restaurant in the world, is hoping to do to chemistry lessons what Jamie Oliver did to school dinners. Blumenthal has spent the last two years collaborating with the Royal Society of Chemistry to produce Kitchen Chemistry, a textbook being sent to every secondary school in the country. A curious hybrid of home economics and chemistry lessons, he hopes the book will help break down the scientific barriers that turning school children away from the sciences.

But today, he's also bravely invited a few lucky teenagers to get a glimpse of life in his gastronomic laboratory for a science masterclass. In a scene reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, the students are gathered in the Hinds Head hotel, next door to the restaurant, watching in awed wonder as the 39-year-old chef talks them through the differences between flavour and taste. In front of them are three tables, covered with chemical paraphernalia like pipettes, glass flasks and tubs of bubbling liquid. In the corner, a handful of extremely boffin-like looking scientists, are taking notes. Many have come from overseas to see how the guinea pigs will take to the new syllabus.

"Taste happens on the tongue, inside the mouth," announces Blumenthal, while brandishing a carrot. "Flavour, however, is registered in the olfactory bulb, which is between the eyes, behind the bridge of the nose. If you clench your nostrils when you eat an apple you will not taste apple, only sweetness. But if you let your nostrils go, then you will taste sweetness."

He passes around the carrot to prove how sounds can also influence taste - encouraging the students to crunch them. This, he says, will give the impression of the food being fresher. The students dutifully munch, then nod in agreement.

"The carrots taste really different because of the sound," says Francesca Ruddy, 13, from St Aloysius school in Glasgow. "It is odd. We have been working on elements and compounds, and it would be good to do more experiments. Because I got involved, it is easier to remember the experience." Her classmate, Peter Kilbride, age 14, agrees. "I didn't know that sound and smell could affect taste. This is much more fun than our chemistry lessons - we've only done two teacher demonstrated experiments all year."

It's a sentiment shared by all the students. "I have never done this sort of thing in school," says James Laughlin, 14, from Stamford school in Lincolnshire. "Tasting's not usually allowed."

A self-taught chef, whose only scientific qualification is a physics O-level, Blumenthal is passionate about making his latest venture a success. He is convinced that bringing chemistry to school kitchens will demystify the subject for students, and make them better cooks in the process. "It's the science of everyday life," he says. "Even if people do not cook, they do eat. My school cookery experience was meatloaf, and I think that making ice cream from liquid nitrogen is a damn sight more interesting."

At a time when science subjects are at their most unpopular - an age where teenage girls aspire to being celebrities instead of brain surgeons - Blumenthal's project could give chemistry lessons a much needed injection. "Research suggests that most people's perception of scientists is blokes in white coats who are a bit nerdy," says Ted Lister, a co-author of Kitchen Chemistry. "Heston is not like this, he is making chemistry and science accessible. This is not a standard textbook, but it will keep the interesting bits of chemistry alive.

"Every topic is linked to the national curriculum. It gives a context to relatively familiar experiments, like titration for instance: when salt is added to water when cooking beans, salt leaks from the beans and into the water. Pupils can measure the salt content, and also see the practical application."

Blumenthal's step into school science is a logical progression. His experiments with culinary perception and assumption, with sweet and savoury, have resulted in a menu that brings together ingredients in spectacular combinations. And his signature dishes of snail porridge, bacon and egg ice cream, and carpaccio of cauliflower with chocolate jelly, are world famous.

"I have asked 20 years of relentless questions," he says of his experiments. "And I think that my naïveté was a blessing in disguise. Although possibly not when I got my wife thrown out of a supermarket for carrying a bucket filled with saline solution, so she could find out which potatoes sink, and which swim: the lighter potatoes are better for making mashed potato."

His fascination with the processes of taste, memory and the physical transformation of ingredients have influenced his menu, but though he may stun the tastebuds, the dishes are not just made to shock.

Science has enabled Blumenthal to hone his unique methods of cooking. Brandishing a flask of nitrous oxide, Blumenthal closes the lesson with a demonstration in high-speed ice cream making.

"It's like magic" whispers Francesca. "I've never seen anything like it before." With lessons like these, anyone could get an appetite for science.