Heston Blumenthal at Home
Modern cook books are a puzzle, some of them are excellent, while others, or more accurately, most, are very very poor. Cook books aren’t about cooking or learning skills, they’re about life style, selling the gastro dream of perfect manicured food every time you eat. These books are recipe after recipe, with accompanying perfectly lit glossy photographs, and on the whole they are completely useless. In the words of Michael Booth “Don’t worry, it’s not you. Recipes don’t work” there are so many permutations to a simple recipe, type of pan, heat of oven, quality of produce, age of produces etc etc, that no real recipe will ever work without a fundamental range of skills to back them up. So, as I’ve written before, I look for cook books that talk about technique and skills rather than recipes; my final list of favourite books is quite short.
One chef who, for me, focusses totally on technique and understanding, is Heston Blumenthal. I do feel obliged to say I’m a Heston fanboi, I own his books, I’ve eaten at The Fat Duck and I read his newspaper columns. I feel he actually knows what is going on, and having a vague science background myself, I really appreciate his approach to cooking. His Fat Duck Cook Book, is fascinating and I thoroughly enjoy scouring it for tips that may help my home cooking, however I’ve never made a recipe from that book, and probably never will. It’s far too complicated and really not designed for that purpose, it’s more of an autobiography than a cook book, a treatise on his life’s works.
You can imagine my excitement, when hearing via the world of twitter, that Heston had just released a book more focused on home cooking, rather than the brilliant but mostly unobtainable dishes he serves in The Fat Duck. I immediately found myself on Amazon and a few clicks later was happily awaiting delivery of ‘Heston Blumenthal At Home’. The next few days wait was tinged with excitement, much like a child a week before his birthday, the delivery couldn’t come soon enough. What arrived was a heavy dense book, 2.135kg for those with precision digital scales, I must have for any Heston fan. More of an encyclopaedia than a book, it was large enough to easily beat someone to death with. Thus if any would be burglar breaks into to my kitchen while I’m there, between this, my Mrs Beeton and the Larousse Gastronomique they’re in for a dam good pummeling.
I’ll cut to the chase, this book is brilliant, I don’t mean that in a kind of modern way where the word amazing seems to be interchangeable with OK or average. It really is brilliant, in fact I would have been quite happy paying the money just for the chapter on meat. This week, I’m going to slow roast a chicken at 90°c, a concept I never would have considered before, I’ve already made shortbread with olive oil as well as butter. However, it’s not the recipes that make it great, this book is full of recipes, and ones with elegant and luxurious photos. What is so more important in this book is the information, the skills and techniques, knowing what happens when you fry a steak, wash some salad or make your own mayonnaise.
Will I make most of the recipes from this book? Certainly not, there will be plenty I probably never make, but will it change the way I cook? Yes. The way I make stock, roast meat, poach fish and bake biscuits has already been reconsidered. I’ve spent the hour prior to writing the article researching vacuum pack machines and water baths on the internet, due to the sous vide chapter. This isn’t a cook book or a recipe book, it’s a technical cooking manual, stuffed full of the kind of info that will make you a better cook. It is already a favourite of mine, and is clearly better than all the other celebrity offerings that will adorn our shelves this year.