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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The rudest mushrooms you'll ever meet

They were labelled 'Egg Mushrooms, England' on the stall, and they do indeed look quite ovular. Touch them, however, and the impression changes. Their velvety skin encloses a thick layer of gel surrounding a small firm capsule.
The people on the stall had no idea as to what they might be, how to cook them or whether they might be palatable.
Naturally I filled a brown paper bag and set off to challenge all comers. Mostly it was just fun watching people pick them up. Their expressions would flip to bewilderment and mild disgust as they bit back the immediate reaction: "But they feel like testicles!"
I tried all my foodie friends, the manager of the Chinese restaurant where I ate that evening and the staff at Carluccio's.
There we neglected all the other customers to look the eggy mushrooms up in Carluccio's mushroom book, but to no avail.
Finally the Man (who had only heard them described over the phone) somehow came up with an identification from a website. My 'egg mushrooms' that so sensually resembled hairless testicles were the immature form of a charming fungus known as the stinkhorn, or phallus impudicus.
If left unpicked for another 24 hours, they would have sprouted into foul-smelling phalluses. Judging by the online photos, these were probably the something nasty in the woodshed that traumatised Aunt Ada Doom.
All references made it clear that the mature form was inedible, even for the least squeamish, but some half-hearted allusions were made to cultures in which the eggs are a 'delicacy'.
Never one to shirk a challenge, I skinned them, washed off the extremely tenacious gel and sliced the surprisingly hard nubs to fry in butter. They were unpalatable to the point of being not worth eating. After four mouthfuls, I threw the rest in the bin, regretting only the waste of good butter. The mushrooms themselves had provided me with enough entertainment to more than merit the money spent on them.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The realisation of a dream

Have you ever looked forward to something so much that you were sure it couldn't live up to expectations? Eating at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant the Fat Duck was one of those experiences for me, but he didn't let me down.
Nestled in a small town half an hour by train from London, the Fat Duck looks unpretentious to the point of being self-effacing from the outside. On entering, you are conscious of warmly welcoming staff and plain but good décor. Then you sit down, notice that the starched white linen napkin has the name and logo of the restaurant woven into its fabric and after that there is no time for details that are not about the food.
The tasting menu provides some 18 or 19 courses, many of them minute and all witty.
Blumenthal is famous as a pioneer of 'molecular gastronomy', a fancy name dreamt up for even fancier application of science to cooking. He likes to put flavours and concepts together that sound like bad dreams and taste like marriages made in heaven. Sardine on toast sorbet or vanilla mayonnaise maynot come from any culinary tradition, but if you are open-minded enough to taste them, you will be surprised at how well they work.
Surprise is a major element in the food here, whether it be the orange and beetroot jellies, where the colours belie the flavours, or the nitro-green tea and lime mousse Œcooked¹ in liquid nitrogen and disappearing almost instantly in your mouth.
A begrudger might wonder whether the trickery has taken over from the fundamental cooking, but dishes such as the roast foie gras with almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile would quickly reassure any doubts. The foie gras is perfect, the chamomile pointing its flavour beautifully, while the combination of almond and cherry enhances the sweet cyanide bitterness of each to counterpoint the rich savoury meat.
Hot and cold are also dimensions in his culinary universe. In the kitchen, Blumenthal has experimented with cooking things at different temperatures; salmon poached with liquorice was cooked sous-vide, sealed and poached for a long time at a very low temperature, turns out meltingly soft but with an essential and subtle flavour that is complemented as much as overwhelmed by
the liquorice.
The glass of hot and cold tea that comes at the end of the meal is hot when drunk from one side of the glass and cold from the other. This playfulness is evident throughout the menu ­ only go to the Fat Duck if you are prepared to be open-minded and like to be entertained.