These days everything seems to be classed as ‘high-tech’ from phones to cars to iPads to games to television on demand. Now the ancient art of cooking has entered an era of research and is producing a food style that is know as molecular gastronomy. Over the centuries cooking has evolved mainly through trial and error, noting carefully what worked and then attempting to replicate it again and again. That is the basis of a recipe and now we have thousands if not millions of recipe books to choose from. However, there has been very little pure research into exactly why certain recipes worked at the molecular level.
In the late 1980s, Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, one a physicist and one a physical chemist, coined the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ and their aims were to bring together professional cooks for discussions on the science behind traditional cooking, eg, why does a mayonnaise become firm when it is being mixed, or why does cream thicken when beaten, or why does a soufflé swell when cooked, etc. They also wanted to investigate old wives’ tales about cooking to see if they were true, and if so, why.
Some of these old wives’ tales proved to be untrue such as that searing meat seals in the juices, the need to add salt when cooking green vegetables, the cooking time for roast meat depends on the weight, and when cooking meat stock you need to start with cold water.
They also wanted to investigate new tools, products, and methods for cooking, also to explore how our senses affect our appreciation of food. An example of how our senses affect taste is if you think back to your holidays when you had a simple lunch in a simple café on the beach. The same dish may taste miserable if you try to recreate it on a grey winter’s evening at home. Some of the reasons it tasted so good on your holidays may have been the smells in the air, the fact that you were relaxed or perhaps the sound of the ocean in the background. Heston Blumenthal, probably the best know chef in the area of molecular gastronomy, has a symphony of the sea dish in his restaurant in the UK where he provides earphones for you to listen to the sound of crashing waves as you eat your seafood platter. He will sometimes spray a fine mist of a very particular flavour just before you eat a dish. Naturally there are many who say this is all nonsense and indeed it does sound slightly crazy, but don’t knock it until you have tried it.
If you want to experience this type of cooking you will have to travel, as it is still very much a high-end niche business. The preparation for a lot of these seemingly simple dishes is incredibly laborious and that translates into the high costs of chefs and eventually the price of the meal. For instance, to make a cup of lettuce juice for use in a dish means you may have to clean and wash 20 pounds of lettuce and spend an hour and a half squeezing it through cheesecloth, all this to produce a tiny amount of liquid. However the taste will be like an explosion in your mouth. I had a small shot glass of tomato water at a lunch in Cava restaurant in Dominick Street recently and it was produced in a similar fashion. The little shot glass looked pretty insignificant until you tasted it – wow – it was magic. This was part of a special lunch for other chefs so it is probably not on the menu but it shows we do have that kind of talent locally in Galway if we are prepared to pay for it. One place that is not too far away and does practice several of these new techniques is Cregan’s Castle in Ballyvaughan and if you are a foodie it is a must visit restaurant. I will do an in depth article about it some time soon but I can tell you that it is cooking the most ambitious food on the west coast.
One theory I really like is that molecular gastronomy may allow us to prepare very healthy but otherwise unattractive foods for children in a way that would appeal to them as much as a big mac. Imagine if we could prepare cabbage, brussels sprouts, or turnip in a way that kids would love. For example, a turnip dessert that tasted like nutella, or porridge that tasted as good as crisps, or cabbage that tasted like strawberries.
I think the whole area is exciting and I will be trying to make several dishes using some of the more simple techniques. If it is a success I will list some recepies and techniques for you or your chemistry teenage students to try out. A great source of ideas and methods is Youtube, just type in the words molecular gastronomy for some fun videos, specifically type the words ‘dragons breath popcorn’ and show it to your kids.
A note for gardeners, if you want some really good and unusual variety plants, for example a black tomato plant that has 10 times the anti-oxidants of other tomato plants you should visit the Claregalway market on Sundays and find a stall run by Nathan Nokes. All his plants are organic and many are sourced from seed savers allowing you to try some of the very old Irish varieties that are not available commercially any more.