The NS Interview: Heston Blumenthal, chef

“Sucking the heads off prawns is one of life’s great pleasures”

Do you have a favourite era for food?
The Tudor period was interesting. I remember reading about "four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie", and two things struck me. First, God knows what the inside of the pie was like - no wonder the average life expectancy was about 20 - and, second, what would people's faces be like?

Before opening the restaurant Dinner, did you immerse yourself in historical cookbooks?
Yes. I came across a horrific recipe from about 1300, in which you pluck a chicken while it is still alive, baste its skin so it looks roasted, rock it to sleep and put it on a serving platter between two roasted chickens. At some point, this poor chicken wakes up and runs down the table, shocking everybody. It got me thinking - there was no cinema or computer games, so food tended to play a much more theatrical role.

Have you discovered anything at the Fat Duck restaurant that can improve our everyday food?
Learned association - vanilla smells sweet, yet sweetness doesn't have a smell; it's a taste, and taste happens in the mouth. If you chew a vanilla pod, you'll find that it's as bitter as coffee. The only reason we think vanilla smells sweet is that we grew up with it in ice cream, cakes and biscuits. If you want to reduce sugar in a dessert, you can spray a little spritzer of vanilla over it and create the perception of more sweetness. Similarly, if you increase the umami [savoury taste] content, you can reduce the salt.

You've called for labelling laws to be changed so that there are no pictures of rolling hills with battery chicken breasts. How practical is that?
It might not be easy. But you get packets of chicken breasts that are four or five inches wide by six or seven inches long and nobody stops to think: "Chickens don't have breasts that big." They're basically re-formed pieces of meat that get sliced and then put into packets with a nice, little watercolour picture of a manor house on them. While it doesn't say that this piece of chicken comes from that manor house, it's still misleading.

Are your friends terrified when you come over for a dinner party?
To me, being cooked for is such a treat. The last thing I'd do is criticise. I think it's harder the other way round; if I invited someone over and gave them a bowl of pasta, they'd go: "Oh, flipping hell, I can't even eat the bowl."

On Heston's Mission Impossible, you tried to improve hospital food. Why is it so grim?
It's a funding issue. It's also that you never have a three-course meal in day-to-day life, so why would you in hospital? That's why we focused on giving less but making it better. People used to think that your sense of taste diminishes with age, but it doesn't - or nowhere near as much as we thought. What does kill it is being ill, stressed or on medication. The context of eating and mealtimes is important, too. Hospitals, by their nature, are not the happiest places: you might have the nurse come to change your bedpan, then give you food.

What is the most underrated food?
There are prawns you can get from the Balearics that are red when raw, rather than grey. You give them 30 seconds on the grill and then you suck the heads. They have a liquid centre. For me, they're one of life's great pleasures - but some of my friends aren't convinced.

What's the first meal you remember cooking?
It was for my mum's birthday, dolmades - vine leaves, stuffed with rice. I must have raided my mum's cookbooks and seen a nice picture. It was very exotic to me. I certainly didn't eat lobster and caviar and I didn't know what an oyster looked like until I was about 15.

What's your guilty TV dinner?
Prawn cocktail - I'm a 1970s kid. And I don't mean langoustines and sauce Nantua: I'm talking about a plastic tub of prawn cocktail from the supermarket.

Do your children like your food?
Yes. When they were younger, they went through phases of not eating certain things. My son now really loves his food, but for years the only fish he ate was battered.

Do you vote?
No. I have voted but I didn't at the last election. I couldn't decide. I think our politics is more muddled than ever before.

Is there anything you'd like to forget? Maybe the time the oven exploded at the Fat Duck?
I don't want to forget those [moments] because they are part of what made the restaurant and made me. I wouldn't want to go through them again, but I don't want to forget them.

Was there a plan?
No. Over the years, I've been so close to going under. There's been a big chunk of luck.

Are we all doomed?
We all come on to this planet and disappear off it - but have a bloody good go at enjoying yourself on the way there.

Defining moments

1966 Born in London
1982 Decides he wants to be a chef after a family meal at a three-Michelin-starred French restaurant in Provence
1995 Buys a pub in Bray, Berkshire, and turns it into the Fat Duck
2004 Fat Duck wins three Michelin stars
2005 Named best restaurant in the world
2011 Heston's Mission Impossible airs on Channel 4. Takes part in Festival of Britain at Southbank Centre, London, on 9 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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Nobody's bargaining chips: How EU citizens are fighting back against Theresa May

Immigration could spike after Brexit, the Home Affairs select committee warned. 

In early July, EU citizens living in Scotland received some post from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The letters stated: “The immediate status of EU nationals living in Scotland has not changed and you retain all the same rights to live and to work here. I believe those rights for the longer term should be guaranteed immediately.”

The letters were appreciated. One Polish woman living on a remote Scottish island posted on social media: “Scottish Government got me all emotional yesterday.”

In reality, though, Sturgeon does not have the power to let EU citizens stay. That rests with the UK Government. The new prime minister, Theresa May, stood out during the Tory leadership contest for her refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens. Instead, she told Robert Peston: “As part of the [Brexit] negotiation we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU.”

As Home secretary in an EU member state, May took a hard line on immigration.  As PM in Brexit Britain, she has more powers than ever. 

In theory, this kind of posturing could work. A steely May can use the spectre of mass deportations to force a hostile Spain and France to guarantee the rights of British expat retirees. Perhaps she can also batter in the now-locked door to the single market. 

But the attempt to use EU citizens as bargaining chips may backfire. The Home Affairs select committee warned that continued policy vagueness could lead to a surge in immigration – the last thing May wants. EU citizens, after all, are aware of how British immigration policy works and understand that it's easier to turn someone back at the border than deport them when they've set up roots.

The report noted: “Past experience has shown that previous attempts to tighten immigration rules have led to a spike in immigration prior to the rules coming into force.”

It recommended that if the Government wants to avoid a surge in applications, it must choose an effective cut-off date for the old rules, whether that is 23 June, the date Article 50 is triggered, or the date the UK finally leaves the EU.

Meanwhile, EU citizens, many of whom have spent decades in the UK, are pursuing tactics of their own. UK immigration forms are busy with chatter of UK-based EU citizens urging one another to "get your DCPR" - document certifying permanent residence - and other paperwork to protect their status. More than 1,000 have joined a Facebook group to discuss the impact of the referendum, with hot topics including dual nationality and petitions for a faster naturalisation process. British citizens with foreign spouses are trying to make the most of the "Surinder Singh" loophole, which allows foreign spouses to bypass usual immigration procedures if their British partner is based in another EU country. 

Jakub, a classical musician originally from Poland, is already thinking of how he can stay in the UK, where there are job opportunities for musicians. 

But he worries that although he has spent half a decade in the UK, a brief spell two years ago back in Poland may jeopardise his situation.“I feel a new fear,” he said. “I am not sure what will happen next.”