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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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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