With Christmas fast approaching we look at some new books on the spirits of food and drink past, present and yet to come – as well as the science of spirits itself.
Columbia University Press
Note by Note Cooking: The Future of Food
by Herve This
£16.95, ISBN 9780231164863
Hervé This – an internationally acclaimed physical chemist, writer and chef – is one of the most extraordinary characters I have ever come across. I was first exposed to his engaging manner of expressing his views at a lecture he gave to the students of London’s Cordon Bleu culinary school in 2010.
The word ‘lecture’, however, was hardly appropriate to describe his presentation – an unlikely hybrid of an academic report, culinary demonstration, stand-up comedy and morris dancing, his main (and rather controversial) message being “if you don’t like chemistry, stop cooking!”
Hervé This is known globally as ‘the father of molecular gastronomy’ – a discipline that he himself invented (in collaboration with Nicolas Kurti) in 1988. In his E&T interview, with an accompanying quirky column, which I had a pleasure to edit (see issue 4, 2010), he described molecular gastronomy as “the science of food and physical chemistry” and asserted that it was not about “cooking for rich people”, a stereotype associated with some trendy modern chefs, like Heston Blumenthal, but rather a “scientific activity” trying to come up with the best (meaning tastiest) possible combinations of natural and scientifically generated (read: chemical) ingredients.
Among the molecular gastronomy dishes he demonstrated in London and mentioned in the same interview were Ethanol Egg, One Cubic Metre Egg and Egg Jelly.
Much pure natural water, mixed with egg yolks and some liquid chemical ingredients, has no doubt flowed under under Hervé This’s proverbial bridge since then. “The science of food and physical chemistry” has been gaining global popularity, and This now presides over the International Centre of Molecular Gastronomy, which he founded himself in Paris earlier this year.
He keeps touring the world with his amazing one-man shows-cum-lectures and has written several books on the subject, including a technology-laden best-seller, ‘The Science of the Oven’.
This writes the way he speaks – with subtle irony, whim and humour, and each of his books, apart from being scientifically revealing, is an almost taste-able and invariably delicious literary delight.
All of the above can be applied to his latest title, ‘Note-by Note Cooking. The Future of Food’, just published by Columbia University Press. In it, This takes the concept of molecular gastronomy one step further, to the use in cooking of pure molecular compounds alone. Examples include: tyrosene – a cheese-flavoured amino acid; 1-Octen-3-ol, with a scent of mushrooms; limonene – a citrus-smelling liquid hydrocarbon; a curry-like sotolon etc.
Such a concept sounds iconoclastic, almost blasphemous, for the modern cooking scene, living as it does by the gospel of 100 per cent natural organic ingredients, but let’s not rush to dismiss it as just another jest by one of the world’s most notable scientific eccentrics.
‘Note-by-Note Cooking’ rests on a solid base: cooking with molecular compounds is almost always more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly than with all-natural ingredients. It is also healthier(!) and more nutritious, This asserts. If so, it could indeed be the future of food as we know it.
As This himself wrote in an email to me last September: “I do think that ‘note-by-note’ food is the future, otherwise I wouldn’t take the burden to promote such thing...”
With all my genuine admiration for the ‘father of molecular gastronomy’, I have to confess to being conservative in matters of food and would always prefer lemon to ‘limonene’, and a good old Chicken Madras to a sotolon compound, no matter how flavoursome and nutritional the latter may be.
Despite the ever-growing molecular gastronomy trend in both cooking and food writing, I remain in full agreement with my favourite chef Gino D’Acampo, asserting in one of his books that a home-made pasta is always preferable to a factory-manufactured one.
My favourite cookbook therefore is not ‘The Science of the Kitchen’ but ‘Be My Guest: The Georgian Recipe for Cooking Success’ by Anna Sadadze & David Gigauri (Sulakauri Publishing), full of beautifully presented and easy to execute recipes for Georgian dishes and sauces (that’s the Caucasian nation, not the period in British history) – balanced, colourful, old-fashioned and reassuringly non-scientific.
The Heineken Story: The Remarkably Refreshing Tale of the Beer That Conquered the World
By Barbara Smit,
£9.99, ISBN 9781781253601
Not a devout beer drinker (I have always preferred wine), I first tried Heineken lager during the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. As one of the previously unseen ‘privileges’ that Moscow residents were allowed to enjoy for the duration of the Games, for once Heineken came to properly reflect its own famous logo and slogan by truly refreshing the parts (of the globe) that other beers could not reach, in that particular case, the USSR.
I have to say that I did immediately enjoy its peculiar crispy taste, which appeared to be somehow enhanced by its unusually light colour.
It was only many years later while researching my book ‘Borders Up! Eastern Europe through the Bottom of a Glass’ (Scribner UK, 1999 and Thrust Books, 2014) that I discovered the technological origins of that specific taste and colour: namely bottom-fermentation (which means fermenting at the bottom of the brewing vessel) and long maturation.
Whatever the technology, Heineken remains one of the world’s most recognisable brands – an archetype of the beers which are known as ‘lagers’ in Britain, and as ‘pilsners’ in the rest of Europe.
What I did not know until I opened ‘The Heineken Story’ was that the origin of the English word ‘lager’ is German verb ‘lagern’, meaning to ‘to store’, which corresponds to that longer than average period set aside for maturation.
And this is just one of many little and big discoveries to be found between the covers of this thoroughly researched and engagingly written volume.
Smit takes us on a fascinating excursion through the history of Heineken: the birth of the brand in a small Amsterdam brewery, run by Gerard Adriaan Heineken; the lager’s triumph in the United States market (largely due to the ingenious marketing ploys of Leo van Munching, the company’s USA representative); the tough ‘beer wars’ with other popular brands, and Heineken’s fairly recent success as one of the main sponsors of the London Olympic Games in 2012.
The brand’s history is the tale not only of victories but also of a number of real-life dramas, culminating in the notorious 1983 kidnapping of the legendary Freddy Heineken – an international celebrity, a bon vivant and a patron of arts – by a group of merciless Amsterdam gangsters. Freddy and his driver were only freed after the largest ever ransom was paid for their release.
‘The Heineken Story’ does read like a documentary thriller. It makes one extremely aware of the strong connection between drinks and the drinking industry and almost all other areas of modern society. For once, I feel in total agreement with the openly self-aggrandising book’s subtitle: a “remarkably refreshing tale” indeed!