My top pressie this year was a copy of Heston Blumenthal's epic tome The Big Fat Duck Cookbook in which the experimental chef (and a genius in my humble opinion) reveals the secrets of snail porridge, jelly of oyster and passion fruit with lavender, salmon poached in a liquorice gel and egg and bacon ice cream. They may sound bizarre, or even vile, but here is a man with more Michelin stars than is strictly necessary and whose Fat Duck Restaurant (just down the road from here in Bray) has been voted the best restaurant in the world. He knows what he's talking about.
Blumenthal is obsessed with perfection but also with breaking the often silly rules that we have set ourselves about food combinations. Why is it okay to have kippers at breakfast but not cod or John Dory? If we use egg in ice cream anyway, why not combine it with crystallised and sugared wafer-thin bacon? After all, people put maple syrup and bacon together. And ham and honey. Blumethal's recipes famously push at the boundaries of acceptability and incorporate a great deal of food science too; a third of the book is made up of a series of essays by various academics explaining how our senses work, how we learn our food preferences and more. Blumenthal is interested in the whole experience of food - the sound and smell and look of the food, as well as the taste. His philosophy is that a good meal should involve all of your senses, which is why his Sound of the Sea starter not only looks like foaming tide on a sandy shore, but tastes like the sea too. He combines eels, razor clams and oysters and seaweeds to create a meal that is then set on a bed of wonderfully flavoured 'sand' (breadcrumbs and powdered seafoods) topped with a briny foam that looks like the tide has just receded. And the meal is served with a sea-shell containing an i-pod playing sounds of the sea to listen to as you eat. It's a totally immersive experience. I love the whole concept of this. If you think back to the best meal you ever had, I can almost guarantee that the experience was the sum of much more than the food. It will also include where it was, how you felt, who you were with, the time of year and all kinds of other factors.
As some of you know, I dabbled with becoming a chef at one time - I even worked in a kitchen for three years - and I've always retained a love of cooking and fine dining. My belly is testament to the fact that, though I say so myself, I'm not too shabby in the kitchen. This gorgeously produced book is something that will give me hours and hours of pleasure. It comes in a thick slipcase, is embossed and gilded and features vibrant artwork (by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean) and photography. In many ways it's more like an art book than a cookery book. It certainly knocks all of the Nigellas and Jamies and Gordons into a cocked hat. You won't see this book in a bargain bin at W H Smith.
I hope that your day went as well as mine. The fact that we had brand new episodes of Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit to enjoy was just icing on an already opulent Christmas Cake.
Happy Christmas. x