Heston’s Fantastical Feasts
by Heston Blumenthal
Publisher: Bloomsbury, Country: UK
ISBN: 9781408808603, Year: 2010
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Heston Blumenthal’s “Fantastical Feats” is the companion book to the television series of the same name. In the book and series, Blumenthal creates six feasts, each based on a theme. His aim is to capture the spirit of each theme in the dishes he creates. As with his previous books, one of the principle joys of this book is reading about Blumenthal’s thought process as he turns abstract concepts into the form of food. He writes not only about the ideas that work, but the ones that don’t. The book is immensely entertaining. He writes with great humour, and he has a gift of finding experiences that allows him to connect with the reader and help them to see the food world as he does.

Full review

Structure of the book

The book is a 320 page hardcover. It has an introduction, then six chapters, one for each of the feasts. Every chapter has subsections about different aspects of the feast before finishing with the menu and recipes.

About the author

Heston Blumenthal is the chef/owner of the 3-Michelin-star Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, near London. He has also become a presenter of food related television shows and written four books. “Fantastical Feats” is his fifth book.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

“Food” and “science”, closely followed by “weird”, would probably be the first three words that come to mind when you ask people about Heston Blumenthal. While the word “science” could imply someone who is looking to the future, Blumenthal is someone who looks to the past in order to understand the present. He uses science as a tool for explaining what he has found, and to try and create his interpretation of what he has found in the form of food.

Those who have read his books or watched his television shows would know that he has a gift of taking ideas from different areas, whether it’s history, literature, or popular culture, and bringing these strands together to create a narrative. In a circular way, the narratives inspire the feasts, and the feasts are an edible representation of those narratives.

Fantastical Feasts is based on six dinners. The themes are “A Fairy Tale Feast”, “A Gothic Horror Feast”, “A Titanic Feast”, “A Chocolate Factory Feast”, “A Seventies Feast”, and “An Eighties Feast”.

Each chapter begins with a discussion about the theme for the dinner. Blumenthal does a good job of providing a literary or historical context to set the scene for the food he wants to create. It makes you interested in what he wants to do. In the Gothic Horror feast, he discusses the stories of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll, while in the Eighties Feast, he paints a picture of the rise of the 1980s yuppie. In order to bring the reader into his world, Blumenthal finds examples that stir our own memories and are likely to be a shared experience for many people. For example, there would be few people who haven’t heard of SPAM (from his Seventies Feast) and Blue Nun (from the Eighties Feast).

In a food world where high tech equipment like PacoJets and water baths get the attention of the food world, it’s the long forgotten novelty of equipment like the microwave oven, slush machine and filter coffee machines that Blumenthal finds to be just as fascinating. In his Eighties Feast, Blumental uses a microwave to try and make a Lobster Thermidor from a microwave cookbook from that era. Eventually, he uses a filter coffee machine to create a “lobstercino”. This one dish shows how Blumenthal weaves his ideas together. The lobster represents the excess of the Eighties, while the cappuccino pays homage to Alain Chapel’s famous bouillon de champignons de printemps comme un cappuccino and the rise of this form of coffee as a popular drink.

Blumenthal wouldn’t be Blumenthal without the tricks he plays with food. His best tricks are reserved for his Chocolate Factory and Fairy Tale feasts. It’s hard not to be impressed by his “Lickable Wallpaper” (Chocolate Factory Feast) and the Hansel and Gretel Edible House (The Fairy Tale Feast), but these are one of the few instances of Blumental doing tricks for the sake of it. For the most part, his aim is to create food that can be linked back to the past. He has often written that we don’t get an emotional response from what we eat without some sort of reference point to a previous experience. When he makes his extravagant versions of SPAM or a cheese and ham toastie, he has the aim of doing enough so that the diner knows they are eating high quality food, but with enough of the past so that people can link it to the dish’s humble origins.

What problems/flaws are there?

A problem with the book is that each chapter has a beginning and a middle, but strangely, no conclusion. Blumenthal finishes with what he has to say, and then it’s off to the recipes. The thing that is missing for me is that he doesn’t write about how the dinner guests reacted to his creations. With many of his experiments, he gets people to test them and writes about their reactions. If he can do that during his creative process, then why not with the finished product?

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

People who have enjoyed Blumenthal’s previous books, and the television series of the same name will find “Fantastical Feasts” worthwhile. It is not a book that you will cook from, and I doubt that it will send people to the kitchen on a wave of inspiration. But it is a very entertaining read, and I think that even those with little more than a passing interest in food will find something to enjoy in it.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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