Sunday, 6 March 2011
Raymond Blanc changed my life
When I ordered A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc, I did so in the expectation of it being an autobiography.
It was in my bag when I traveled to Glasgow in late January for work and, on my first night there, I read the opening pages before heading to a restaurant for dinner.
As I posted after that, one of the first things that had struck me was Blanc’s comments on taste – not ‘taste’ as in ‘I have loads and you have none’, but learning to taste.
Or, as he puts it in terms of the UK, “re-connecting with food, re-estsablishing the food culture that for many years has been largely forgotten in Great Britain, thanks in part to intensive farming and supermarkets”.
Once seated in the restaurant, I started with salmon, oak smoked with whisky and juniper.
Not caring what anyone else thought I looked like, I found myself closing my eyes and being able to taste the different elements involved (well, at least some of them). The whisky comes through late – very gentle, very subtle – and gives the dish ‘length’: in other words, it’s a taste experience that lasts beyond an initial sensation.
I was stunned. Continuing to practice, it seriously heightened my experience at Michael Caines @ Abode just over a week ago: I could understand at least some of the complexity and balance of the food I was eating. But adding to understanding is not simply a sort of academic thing – it really adds to the pleasure.
Being quite busy at present, it took a while to get through the rest of the book.
It’s hardly ‘just’ autobiography, though. There is food science, food philosophy and a collection of recipes.
The autobiographical aspects of the book are a delight to read. Blanc wonderfully evokes his childhood in France, where his mother’s cooking and the seasonality of food had such a profound influence on him.
There are also substantial sections detailing some very technical aspects of food, but he explains them in such a way that, not only are they interesting, you start to better understand how to cook, because you better understand how and why some things work and others do not.
‘Why don’t you tear a bay leaf’, is one question that he says he is asked. He doesn’t simply tell you that it would make a dish bitter, but suggests an experiment. Get two small pans with equal amounts of water and a single bay leaf in each – one torn, one not – and slowly heat them.
Taste each after five minutes. Taste again after 10. I haven’t done it (yet), but apparently it’s clear that the torn leaf creates bitterness.
Similarly, his advice on cooking with wine – apart from the very reassuring news that you shouldn’t spend any more than £4-5 on a bottle that you intend to cook with – is equally fascinating.
We use wine to add acidity (I’d never thought of it that way), but Blanc himself usually boils a little of the alcohol off before adding the wine to a dish – just to cut that acid a bit. More than that, he tastes the boiling wine to check he’s reached exactly the right level of acidity for the dish he’s making.
And yes, I have subsequently tried this, tasting every 10 seconds as the wine bubbles away, and the difference over the course of just a few seconds is remarkable.
Indeed, even the mere idea of tasting regularly while cooking had never really hit me. It’s a huge help when seasoning and cuts the cuts the guess work out, for starters.
I’ve cooked from a number of the recipes in the book already. Having made French onion soup more than a few times over the last 10 years, I decided to try that a few weekends ago – just to see if his version produced a noticeably better dish. It had me listing to the onion cook gently in butter to start with, tasting the wine (as mentioned above) and tasting the soup itself as it cooked, starting to comprehend how a dish changes and develops.
For goodness sake – I’m listening to food?! But that is a wonderful way to work out, for instance, how hot butter needs to be to sear meat.
His recipe for bread produced the best I’ve made – although having a mixer helps.
All these recipes have “chef’s notes” at the end, which provide more detail of why he does certain things – again, the increased understanding really helps make things stick in your mind.
It's tempting to think of Blanc, in some ways, as the father of molecular gastronomy in the UK – he’s meticulous and fascinated with the scientific aspects of cooking. But he’s also put off by what he sees as the extremes of that form of cuisine, which he fears is ultimately about something other than wonderful-tasting food.
He’s fascinating too on fusion – and on countless other things.
And all this is from someone who is entirely self-taught – but who has had a massive influence on cooking and food in this country.
One book and I’m eating differently and cooking differently. I cannot say it enough – this really is a fabulous volume.