On November 12, British chef Heston Blumenthal will release Historic Heston: a mammoth, embossed, filigreed volume that comes in a hefty burgundy sleeve. It's Blumenthal's first proper follow-up to his 2008 Big Fat Duck Cookbook, which was similarly heavy and costly and be-sleeved. Between the two releases, Blumenthal dabbled in lighter fair, both literally and figuratively. In 2011 he released the home cooking book Heston Blumenthal at Home, and in 2010 he released Heston's Fantastical Feasts*, which accompanied a TV show on the UK's Channel 4. But now, with Historic Heston, it's time to get serious again.
As The Big Fat Duck Cookbook was a companion to Blumenthal's three Michelin-starred restaurant in Bray, England, Historic Heston is the book to accompany his two Michelin-starred London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Although the book does include recipes from all three of his restaurants — Blumenthal also owns a pub in Bray, the one Michelin-starred Hinds Head — its concept most closely mirrors that of Dinner. Blumenthal takes recipes from historic British texts and approaches them as a modern chef. It's not altogether unlike what Sean Brock does in Charleston with Lowcountry cuisine, and it's a concept that Americans might get more familiar with, should rumors that Blumenthal is opening a US location of Dinner prove correct.
Bringing History to the Present
In the introduction, Blumenthal writes that he became intrigued by historic recipes (and British recipes in particular) after discovering how creative banquet and festival dishes once were: "I'd had little idea that cooking of the past could be so playful, audacious and creative." The book includes recipes from the medieval to late-Victorian periods. Each chapter centers on the historic methods behind a traditional recipe, followed by Blumenthal's exploration of both its historical context and his modern application of it.
To be clear: Blumenthal is not interested in dutifully recreating these recipes as they were made back in the day. While he writes "it was tempting to view them as museum pieces," he instead brings contemporary flavors and techniques to each dish. The results, as photographed by UK cookbook photographer Romas Foord, are stunning. Blumenthal does discuss what he sees as the low point of British gastronomy — the 70s of his youth — and it's almost as though he's attempting to leapfrog over that part of history, by bringing this historic fare of at least a century ago up to contemporary standards. It's what British food would look like if the 19th century had led straight into the 21st. (Blumenthal does include a 70s feast in Heston's Fantastical Feasts, so take that as you will.)
Cooking From Historic Heston
As for the recipes themselves: yes, they are complex, and many require professional skill to execute. This is generally where the chef who has written a professional level cookbook will insist that the home cook might cull a technique or a sauce from their intricately composed restaurant recipes, and honestly, the idea has gotten a bit tiresome. Who reads these big shiny restaurant cookbooks that closely, who becomes that intimately familiar with their recipes? But more so than other cookbooks of this ilk, Historic Heston seems to be a book home cooks might actually be able to use. Seriously.
Are you going to be able to recreate Blumenthal's famous Meat Fruit so faithfully that guests are actually fooled into thinking it's a tangerine? Perhaps not. But can you make the foie gras and chicken liver mousse that goes inside of it and serve it with toast? Absolutely. Each chapter contains recipes that might entice an amateur dabbler, from a beef stock to the foie mousse to a brown bread-flavored ice cream. You might need minimal extra equipment, such as a pressure cooker or an ice cream maker, or a bit of molecular gastronomy-era powder easily purchased online. But you're not afraid of a little gellan gum, are you?
'What Are These Books For?'
There has been some huffing on the internet about the price of this book, as there always has been and always will be with this kind of thing. "What are these books for?" ponders Paul Levy in the Telegraph:
On the whole, you can't cook from them. Are they simply to look at? And if so, are they a kind of food pornography, intended to make us drool over or lust for their art-directed photographs of edibles?
First of all, this book is available on Amazon for $86.25 (£77.50 in the UK), a far cry from the $200 list price. In fact, that's only slightly more than double what Blumenthal's Heston Blumenthal at Home cost, and you're getting an art book, a recipe book, and a history lesson all in one. Second, it's lovely as an object. Diners at Blumenthal's restaurants expect to pay a premium for quality meat and produce; shouldn't they expect to pay a bit for heavier paper, fine illustrations and photography, and what is clearly years of historical research?
I disagree with Levy that you can't really cook from Historic Heston, but I also don't think usability is necessarily a hallmark of a good cookbook. Do you expect to learn how to run a country from reading a presidential biography, or how to paint masterpieces from a coffee table art book? Blumenthal has a book for home cooks already; this book is a restaurant showcase.
Gastronomic Fairy Tales for Grownups
It is a bit of a misplay that the book is significantly smaller than The Big Fat Duck Cookbook; they would have made a handsome pair on the shelf next to each other. No word if Bloomsbury intends to release a smaller, pared-down version of Historic Heston, as they did with Big Fat Duck. Perhaps not; it would explain the smaller scale of Historic Heston.
The overall feel of Historic Heston is a gastronomic fairy tale book for grownups. It evokes a sense of wonder; books like this aren't printed very often any more. The book owes its fantastical vibe to the whimsical and somehow simultaneously dark illustrations done by Dave McKean (who also did Big Fat Duck), as well as Romas Foord's photographic riffs on still life oil paintings and modern food photography. In sum: if Willy Wonka ran Hogwarts, Historic Heston would be the history textbook.
*There was a limited-edition run of Heston's Fantastical Feasts that came with a slipcase.