About 10 years before London's two Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opened, chef Heston Blumenthal was already deep into his journey of exploring the wide and wonderful world of Meat Fruit, a British recipe that dates as far back as the 1300's. Once they learned about the recipe for "Pome Dorres" ("apples of gold"), Blumenthal and chef Ashley Palmer-Watts set about investigating how to make the medieval dish feel contemporary.
Blumenthal's fascination with Pome Dorres/Meat Fruit continued in the years leading up to the opening of Dinner, and he featured variations of the dish for his show Heston's Feasts. Knowing that Dinner would focus on updates of historic dishes, Blumenthal had already decided that there would be Meat Fruit on the menu long before the doors opened in 2011.
It didn't take Palmer-Watts more than a few weeks to develop the current iteration now on the Dinner menu. While the original recipe features minced pork, the restaurant uses a chicken liver and foie gras parfait developed initially at Blumenthal's The Fat Duck with a complementary mandarin orange jelly to create what looks like a small mandarin orange. The recipe itself appears in Historic Heston (one of Eater's essential cookbooks of 2013). The recipe is faithful to how the dish is prepared in the kitchen, and Palmer-Watts says the book did nothing to strip the recipe down or change it for the benefit of home cooks. Writes Blumenthal in the book, "My job, it seemed to me, was to take advantage of the latest equipment to create a meat fruit that the medieval chef could only dream of."
To say the dish is labor intensive is an understatement. The multi-day recipe requires three cooks on the cold larder station to work five hours every day. The 15 hours of work daily though pay off in service — which is "dead easy" Palmer-Watts says — and with the customers. Meat Fruit is more than just a hit dish. "People are getting their picture taken with the dish, not only taking pictures of the dish," says Palmer-Watts. "For chefs, it's just one of the best things to see." Not only are the customers consistently wowed by the playful-looking dish with familiar flavors, but so are the chefs. "We see the Meat Fruit every day, and work on them with tireless perfectionism. And we love eating them," he explains. "When we don't get tired of tasting something, that's quite rare."
Below, the elements of the Meat Fruit at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal:
1. The Filling
At the literal and figurative center of the dish is a velvety chicken liver and foie gras parfait. Palmer-Watts explains that this recipe is actually an adaptation from a terrine from The Fat Duck. The biggest change they needed to make in adapting the recipe from The Fat Duck to Dinner was in scale. "We used to make about six terrines a day at The Fat Duck," says Palmer-Watts. "We were aiming to do 175 covers a night [at Dinner], so we needed to be absolutely sure we could do it for a large number of people … Now we make anywhere from 10 - 16 parfaits a day. It's a lot of work."
The intricate parfait recipe — which calls for sous vide cooking and a Thermomix — is outlined in the cookbook, and Palmer-Watts sheds some light on the central points. First of all is balance. He says that the ratio of foie gras to chicken liver in the recipe is essential, noting that you need to have enough chicken liver for its flavor to come through over the foie. Another key factor is a reduction of alcohols including Madeira, white port, ruby port, and brandy. "It's quite a lot of alcohol, and it's quite expensive to make," says Palmer-Watts. "But when you reduce it down, the sweetness and intensity really make a difference. If you try to make the dish cheaper by halving the amount of alcohol, it just doesn't work. It seems massively indulgent, but it really is worth it."
In order to create the spherical centers of the Meat Fruit, Palmer-Watts pipes the parfait into half-dome shaped silicone molds. After freezing the molds, Palmer-Watts uses a blow-torch to lightly melt the flat tops and fuse them together to make full spheres. He then stick in a metal skewer and places the spheres back into the freezer.
2. The "Peel"
The "peel" of the Meat Fruit is in fact mandarin jelly. The jelly is made with mandarin puree, mandarin essential oil, paprika extract, bronze leaf gelatine, and glucose. It sets overnight.
The following day, the jelly is ready for the dipping process. The jelly is warmed to room temperature. While the parfait spheres are still frozen, Palmer-Watts plunges the spheres into the jelly, holding onto the metal skewer to prevent finger prints. A thin layer of jelly sets instantly around the parfait, and then Palmer-Watts stands the skewers up vertically in a polystyrene block and lets the jelly re-freeze on the parfait for two minutes. He then plunges the spheres back into the jelly. This second dip creates the pin-pricked look of citrus skin. He then puts the spheres onto a clingfilm-lined tray, with the clingfilm absorbing any excess jelly or moisture coming off the spheres. The skewer is then removed, and the tray is placed into the fridge for the spheres to defrost.
3. The Stem
When it's time to serve the Meat Fruit, Palmer-Watts presses the top of the sphere with his thumb to create the mandarin shape. He then takes a stalk of ruscus and places it in the hole left by the metal skewer to emulate the mandarin's stem and leaves. While ruscus is technically edible, Palmer-Watts does not recommend it. He tells the story of the accidental ruscus discovery: Prior to the restaurant's opening, Palmer-Watts was prepping an event in New York City that required him to make meat fruit for 180 guests. The box of oranges he had ordered arrived without stems, leaving him in the lurch. The problem of having enough stems for the Meat Fruit was one the team had not yet had to plan for. A florist happened to walk by the kitchen carrying bunches of "filler flowers." "The problem was solved by an amazing chance."
4. The Bread
The final component of the Meat Fruit is grilled sourdough bread. This is not a standard sourdough. Dinner makes its sourdough bread with Campaillou flour, which blends rye and malt. It creates a distinctive flavor, and a very airy dough. The tall, square loaves are proofed until they collapse on themselves. This long proofing process results in a light, airy, and springy bread with plenty of holes and "rustic" flavor. The bread is brushed with herb oil made from olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and garlic. It is then briefly grilled on a rack placed above the charcoals in the restaurant's Josper oven. The bread is lightly grilled on both sides and then toasted.