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View from Vitalia: Of Buddhism, Chemistry and ‘Putin’s Revenge’

Technology can at times be annoying, particularly when it malfunctions or when it gets over the top, like in the case of molecular gastronomy.

Let’s face it: technology can indeed be annoying. Particularly when there’s too much of it. Or when it starts malfunctioning - and it often malfunctions. Douglas Adams must have had a point when saying that technology is the word to describe something that doesn’t quite work yet.

A simple example is your ordinary five-year-old kitchen dishwasher. While being an amazing convenience and a huge helper in the otherwise boring and, as many tend to think, demeaning, process of washing up dishes (I for myself do not mind washing up manually and - as an aspiring Buddhist - also try to do it mindfully and even philosophically whenever I can), it becomes a real nuisance when it starts smashing your favourite cups and glasses, or worse, flooding your kitchen with slime. Calling a plumber to fix it costs a fortune and trying to do it yourself (as I have attempted repeatedly with different degrees of failure) is one of the least rewarding human occupations I can think of. Each such attempt made me think that I’d rather not own a dishwasher at all than dig through all those fatty stinky bits in its underbelly.

Take electronic fire alarms – the one that is easy to activate and very hard to shut up, even in the complete absence of fire or smoke in a radius of many miles. A very effective warning it is, unless you are trying to meditate in the neighbouring room. That was exactly what I experienced last week inside a small Buddhist monastery deep in the Hertfordshire countryside, to where I - on my cardiologist’s advice - often come in search of peace and quiet. It so happened that, due to some problems with the monastery’s electricity supply, a fire alarm inside the Temple got activated, with no fire anywhere near the monastery grounds. The alarm’s methodical regular beeps could be heard very clearly inside the meditation hall, where a handful of fellow calm-seekers were trying to carry on with their respective meditations.

I was in the middle of a mental body scan trying to focus all attention on my breathing - beep, beep - and concentrate on the sensations in my body – beep, beep, beep - and achieve some kind of mindfulness – beep, beep, beep, beep. On realising that the latter was no longer possible, I attempted to focus on the beeps themselves and start perceiving them mindfully, but failed.

Having put on my shoes, I went to the ante-room where the fuse box was located, only to discover that – for safety reasons – the alarm could not be switched off easily and that a qualified electrician was needed to do it. Not being a qualified electrician myself, I had to call it a day and head home, my only consolation being that, according to the Buddha himself, our life is nothing but dukkha (suffering).

Yes, technology these days has penetrated everything, including culinary art. It all started with molecular gastronomy - a kind of kitchen-style science investigating the properties and transformations of the cooking ingredients. The father (read inventor) of molecular gastronomy – an eccentric French chef and scientist Herve This (pronounced “t-ee”) should be familiar to the readers of E&T magazine, which featured a long interview with him in 2010, see https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2010/03/herve-this-the-father-of-molecular-gastronomy/

Prior to that interview, I had a chance to listen to Herve’s lecture on molecular gastronomy to the students of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in London. His presentation, it has to be said, was more reminiscent of a South African tribal dance than of a lecture. He was bouncing on the floor, jumping up and down while pouring liquids from one vessel to another and chanting in French and in English, at times in both simultaneously. It was a truly fascinating spectacle.

Since then, I have been on Herve’s mailing list getting regularly updated about all new achievements and discoveries of the scientific chef, who firmly believes that chemical compounds make much better ingredients for classy quality meals than the most natural and the most organic of products. His latest invention is the so-called ‘note-by-note cooking’ which is a way of cooking based on molecular gastronomy and using chemicals instead of plant or animal tissues.

Let me now quote Herve’s latest press release which I found in my submissive email box on 14 February:

“This will be the first time in France that a 100 per cent Note by Note menu will be served: this means that the dishes are made from pure compounds, with no meat, no fish, no eggs, no vegetables, no fruits. Entirely new flavours, textures, tastes, odours, are obtained, just as electronic music can create entirely new sounds.”

Not sure about electronic music, but to me it all sounded like a sample menu of an average Soviet dinner, ‘with no meat, no fish, no eggs, no vegetables, no fruits’, but just a bottle of vodka and a couple of pickled gherkins, albeit Herve This would have probably discarded even them in favour of a chemical.

His press release carried an invitation to the “press conference with demonstrations and tasting” in the kitchen of the restaurant called ‘Julien Binz’ in Ammerschwihr, Alsace (where else?).  

For someone like me, who lives and works in Hertfordshire, England, it was not easy to just take off and head for the mysterious Ammerschwihr, so I had to keep making guesses as to what was actually served during that dinner – right until another press release hit my uncomplaining email box. 

Issued by Herve This on 24 February 2018, it listed “the first ever 100 per cent Note by Note menu” served in that very ‘Julien Binz’ restaurant, the menu “with no meat, no fish, no eggs, no milk, no vegetables, no fruits [sic] but only pure compounds”. The fact that “no milk” was now added to the list of what was not available at that dinner was slightly reassuring somehow, albeit I wouldn't be able to explain why.

Below, I reproduce some bits of that menu:

“The NOTE BY NOTE MENU Evocation N°1 : CRAQUANTE Amylopectin crackling tuile, Kroepoeck and gel evocation grilled rice/pop corn/ sponge cake evocation nut Crémant d’Alsace, Q.V. Paul, Bott Frères ****** Evocation N°2 : VOLUPTUEUSE Sorbet evocation beetroot, cloud evocation almond/cherry. Note by note cocktail ****** Evocation N°3 : CREMEUSE In a shell, custard evocation cheese/egg, siphon evocation truffles/forest In the plate: “evovation fried egg” : egg proteins, evocation grilled rice, gel evocation fenugrek/curry, yellow evocation hay/celery, grilled emulsion, crackling of amylopectine. Riesling lieu-dit Scherwiller, Achillée, 2016 ****** Evocation N°4 : FONDANTE Plant proteins, evocation smoke, carrot cellulose, veil of gel evocation roasted chicken, emulsion evocation mushroom/forest, Emulsion grilled bread, proteins croutons. Faugères, Cuvée Amour, Prés Lasses, 2015 ****** Evocation N°5 : AERIENNE Tuile of sucrose/white evocation foamed, evocation caramel/strawberry jam), granite evocation coconut/milk. Muscat, Grand Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten, Mochel, 2015 ****** Evocation N°6 : MOELLEUSE Guimauve (evocation cola-lemon), Bonbon ultime, Macaron (evocation cucumber/pine tree).”

I liked the word ‘evocation’ (once spelled – mistakenly, I assume - as ‘evovation’ – see above) as applied to food, but thought I would have found it hard, if not impossible, to eat and – particularly – to digest something called ‘Amylopectin crackling tuile’ (please excuse my French), let alone ‘granite evocation coconut milk’ (indeed, to digest granite, one must have a stomach made of stainless steel, or - better - of diamonds).

Mind you, I still sincerely believe that Herve This is a brilliant scientist as well as a great public speaker and an engaging character. But could it be that he had somewhat overdone it on the technology side by bringing in too many chemical compounds? I may be of course entirely wrong here and the historic   Ammerschwihr dinner, with not-too-appetisingly named dishes (or were they ‘compounds’?) could have been absolutely delicious (I wasn’t there, so cannot judge), but the above press releases reminded me of a story from the book I am now reading – “The Other Shore” by the famous Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh (I told you I am seriously into Buddhism these days). Here it is:

The Zen Master asked the novice monk: “Tell me about your understanding of the Heart Sutra.”

The novice joined his palms and replied: “There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind. There are no forms, no sounds, no smells, no taste, no touch and no objects of mind.”

“Do you believe this?”

“Yes, I truly believe this.”

“Come closer,” the Zen Master instructed the novice monk. As the novice drew near, the Zen Master reached out, grabbed his nose, and twisted it hard.

In great pain, the novice cried out, “Master! You are hurting me!”

The Zen Master raised his eyebrows. “But you just said that the nose doesn’t exist. So if there’s no nose, then what’s hurting?”

I can assert that there’s something clearly Zen about note-by-note cooking, for, according to another prominent Buddhist writer D T Suzuki, Zen is something that cannot be grasped by intellect alone, but has to be experienced (read tasted)!  This applies to the molecular gastronomy in the whole, too. I am sure that had he not been a talented scientist, Herve This could have made a great Zen Master.  

It is snowing heavily behind the windows of my cottage as I am writing these lines. They say the cold wave has come from Russia – from Siberia, to be more exact, where they recently experienced what newspapers called “the snowfall of the century”. Can it be that President Putin, fed up with being slagged off constantly by the British and other Western media, found a way of redirecting the cold wave from Moscow towards these islands, where all life comes to a stop at the first sign of a gentle snowfall and everything shuts down the moment the air temperature falls one mark below zero?

“There will be disruptions!”, the grim-looking news presenters of all existing TV and radio channels kept promising in chorus two days ago, when the cold front was still on its way to us. Today, lo and behold: train and flight cancellations, as well as panic-buying at supermarkets, are all in full swing, despite the sunny and mild, almost spring-like, afternoon.

If Putin did find the technology to attack us with frost and snow (or with the promises of such), its destructive (and disruptive) power will be much more effective than that of all the cyber attacks combined.

What the West needs is another Rodchenkov-style whistle-blower who will expose it all before altering his face and going into hiding.

I will be awaiting further revelations with interest and in the meantime reserve the right to keep referring to the ongoing cold spell as ‘Putin’s Revenge’.

Do keep warm!

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