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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.