Every age has its heroes. For the Elizabethans it was the buccaneering seafarers Drake and Raleigh; for the Georgians it was men of arts and letters such as Johnson and Reynolds; for the Victorians it was engineers and soldiers such as Brunel and Gordon; and for us it is celebrity chefs, in which we are rich beyond belief.
Not only do we have cooks aplenty, each has his or her instantly recognisable hallmark. Gary Rhodes has a hairstyle which looks as though he has stuck his finger in the pop-up toaster; Gordon Ramsay has a vocabulary like a builder with Tourette’s; Nigella Lawson has a simper and pout somewhere to the north of a bosom on which you could stand a bottle of ketchup; Delia looks like a quiet Nigella in the kitchen and sounds like an overheated Ramsay on the football terrace; Jamie Oliver looks and sounds as though he should be running errands for an East End costermonger.
But in the pantheon of kitchen giants one man stands a colossus to whom all others defer. I speak, of course, of Heston Blumenthal, Heston the Great.
What can one say of a man who has single-handedly reshaped an entire craft? That with his domed head and oriel eyeglasses he looks like Brains in Thunderbirds? That in relegating hob and oven to test-tube and bunsen burner he has made of a simple art a complex science? That in creating such hitherto undreamed of dishes as snail porridge he has enriched our palates in the same way, and with similar materials, that a gardener enriches the soil?All this and more is true, and yet it barely touches the national pride that his name should arouse. In these troubled times, when Britain’s stock is not at its height and the future trembles with foreboding, Heston’s fame burns like a torch. From the four corners of the world, gourmets and bon viveurs, kings and courtesans, aristocrats and plutocrats, Michelin star-struck epicures every one, who have yet to sample puréed earthworm with frozen capers, flock to the Fat Duck at Bray in Berkshire, among whose glass retorts and petri dishes Heston weaves his magic.
Which is all admirable but, sadly, undemocratic. Somehow it seems an affront that hard-working families, if I may borrow a phrase beloved of Gordon Brown, are denied through simple lack of finance the opportunity to sample the manna that drips from Heston’s genius.
Well, we need fret no more. At a stroke, a social injustice has been righted. Pretty soon, the chain of Little Chef restaurants – people’s restaurants, if I may borrow a phrase beloved of Tony Blair – will boast a menu crafted by the master.
Last week, the diner who wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and gently burps into his serviette had an intimation of what awaits him at the Little Chef à la Heston.
Blumenthal’s plan involves fish and chips arriving at the table accompanied by a small bottle labelled “the smell of the chippy”. Customers will then be encouraged to spray the “perfume” under their nostrils as they eat. The resulting aroma, intended to enhance the flavour, is redolent of pickled onions.
The inspired creativity, the breathtaking audacity, leaves one speechless with admiration. Even those of us who lack Heston’s learning know that smell and taste are senses almost synonymous; so by arousing just one of these it is possible to deceive the other. How many otherwise inedible meals could be made delicious when accompanied by a small bottle whose contents suggested real food? Soya, tofu and muesli might masquerade as pleasant with the right spray-on aroma. Kebabs, pizza and KFC might also be made appetising by atomised essence of haute cuisine.
And why stop at food? In our sanitised, homogenised, sell-by date age much has been lost that might, with an overtone of aerosol vapour, be rediscovered and relished. What wouldn’t those of us who drank in the boozers of yesteryear give to savour yet again the evocative suspicion of sawdust and stale vomit, of tobacco smoke and wet spaniel? A lost past could live again, at least in the nostril. Imagine, with a bottle held at our hooter we could stand in the street and smell melting tar and horse manure, magically transporting us to the life of our Edwardian forebears.
Knowing Heston, he won’t stop with the smell of the chippy. Even now, that teeming brain will be perfecting eau de eel, pie and mash and dreaming of bottled nuance of whelk. Enjoy.