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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle