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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.