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A moment in time for Heston ... and me

"I think of my life as a series of moments and I've found that the great moments often don't have too much to them. They're not huge, complicated events; they're just magical wee moments." Billy Connolly

A very long time ago - to my horror I see that it was back in July 2020 - my friend Clare sent me a link to an interview by Margaret Throsby with Heston Blumenthal. It was an ABC podcast, and, as you can see from the image above it is about an hour long. I think I started listening to it then, but David probably came into the room and so I stopped. Her email has been sitting in my inbox all that time being ignored. But today, whilst David was outside being busy in the garden, I finally got around to listening. Perhaps even worse than the fact that I had ignored it for so long, was the fact that I haven't seen Clare since then. Well before then. She and her husband are long-term friends, so this is really not excusable. Well COVID lockdowns of course took care of part of the non connection, but that is now a bit of a feeble excuse. This will be corrected shortly.

But back to Heston.

The interview included pieces of music that he had chosen - a bit like a desert island discs thing I suppose, although there was much more interview than music. If you're interested the music chosen was:

  • Orff: "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana

  • Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez

  • The Pogues: Fairytale of New York

  • Albinoni: Adagio in G Minor

  • Bobby Womack: 110th Street

An eclectic mix, each of which had a story attached.

But there were other stories too and one of these was of the moment in his life when he changed the direction in which he was heading. At about the age of 16 he was holidaying in France with his parents who had bought a house near Montpellier. One day they visited L'Oustau de Baumanière - three Michelin star restaurant just below the old hilltop town of Baux de Provence. As he said in his interview, he had never dined at such a place before and he was completely blown away by the whole experience. It wasn't the food - it was the ambience, the setting, the perfection of the whole thing. It changed his life.

The name of the restaurant rang a bell, and to be honest I thought it was Alain Ducasse's restaurant, but no. Herewith a little bit about the place.

It was opened in 1945 by Raymond Thuillier. By 1949 it had one Michelin star, by 1952 it had 2 and in 1954 it had three. At some point he roped in his grandson, Jean-André Charial who, in fact still owns the place. At that time though he was the chef. He is the man on the left below. The man next to him is the current chef Glenn Viel who has regained the third star, which was lost for a while under other chefs. And next to him are the kitchen staff - that's a lot of people. Today it is also a five star hotel - you can see that it is quite a large complex from the air and is one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. So Heston's parents must have had some money - at least enough for a very special meal out.

From the Heston perspective though it was one of those crucial moments in one's life - a magic moment and in some ways, considering his later career, a little curious that it was not the food that he remembered. But for him it was one of Paulo Coelho's 'magic moments' - the ones that change our lives.

"The magic moment is the moment when a 'yes' or a 'no' can change our whole existence." Paulo Coelho

But speaking of moments - the mention of Baux brought back a memory of a visit we made to Baux back in 2012 when we had been staying with friends in St Rémy de Provence. Baux de Provence - as you can see from the photo below is perched on top of a white rocky outcrop. These days it is really just a tourist town. I doubt that many people actually live there, and those that do would probably only be the tourist shop owners. But, as you can see it is quite spectacular.

However, it wasn't just the place that I remember - it was an almost magic moment. In this case I suppose it was memorable rather than magical. It didn't change my life but it's one of those vivid memories in life. A kind of magic moment. The streets of Baux are paved with cobblestones, and we were pausing in our climb to the top over a drink in a café, when this amazing couple walked by. Well I suppose she was the amazing one - look at that dress and look at those heels, and look at how everyone is staring as she went by. Who was she? Who was he? Did she know that everyone was staring? In disbelief, or wonder, attraction, or amusement? I remember it so clearly still.

Back to Heston again. He talked about all sorts of things, the people who influenced him, the scientists with whom he collaborated, his desire to serve "refined, gutsy food but still simple" when he opened the Fat Duck. And when he opened it I doubt that any of us would consider his food simple, and yet, it was his chips that made him famous. And you can't get more basic than chips:

"I became obsessed with chips around 1992, before I had even opened the Fat Duck, and this was probably the first recipe I could call my own. It has since cropped up in restaurants and pubs all over the place. Achieving the crisp glass-like exterior depends on getting rid of moisture from the potato and creating little cracks on the surface where the oil will collect and harden, making it crunchy." Heston Blumenthal

The rest is history as it were, but he did eventually bring out a book called Heston Blumenthal at Home, of which Margaret Throsby had a copy. A beautiful, heavy book she said, and she had opened it thinking that she would not be able to make anything in it. But yes she could - roast chicken. Not roast chicken as you and I know it though because it is cooked very slowly for a long time - the total cooking time is around 5 hours! But not difficult. So maybe we should all try it some time - SBS has the recipe. I have a feeling that my daughter-in-law has a copy of the book, and it's certainly something that could appear in an op shop. Keep your eyes open.

Apologies to Clare for not listening to Heston talking about his life. It was interesting and he came over as an amiable guy who was just passionate about exploring every aspect of food for as he says:

“Cooking is the only thing we do that involves all the senses.”

All other arts, at the most only involve two, maybe three. And the other thing that he noted with respect to taste was that we can only recognise all the different components of the taste we are tasting because of the memory of all the previous things that we have tasted in life.

Memory - so important.


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