Food: The Chemistry of its Components
Published:09 Oct 2015
There are still people who hold that science has little place in cuisine. But my original encounter with Tom shows, I think, that science can be just as exciting, influential and creative as any other tool or technique in the kitchen.
It was Tom who first introduced me to the setting agent gellan gum. Nowadays, this might not seem particularly extraordinary since the gum has become an essential part of almost every top chef's armoury. But back in the 90s when, prompted by Tom, I first started using it, gellan wasn't part of the restaurant world at all. (It was only available in industrial-sized 25 kg drums and I was using a teaspoonful or so at a time. I once worked out that I actually had enough to set the liquid in an Olympic swimming pool!)
Tom singled out gellan's resistance to heat and its fantastic capacity for flavour release. I tried using it to set little cubes of lime gel to combine with pommes purée (because potato and lime have an amazing affinity) and the results were spectacular.
One of the most thrilling things about both cooking and science is the way dozens of unexpected ideas and possibilities can tentacle out of a single discovery. From that lime pommes purée I moved on to setting almond-infused milk with gellan and blending and sieving it to create a beautifully smooth, full-flavoured almond purée or, more precisely, fluid gel. And from there, inspired by a Thai drink, I developed a glass of tea with basil seeds seemingly magically suspended in it. For this I made a fluid gel so delicate you'd think it was liquid, and this in turn led to the creation of perhaps my most impossible dish: a cup of tea that appears to be hot on one side and cold on the other. And on the back of that hot/cold contrast, I began thinking about how I might exploit gellan's properties to fulfil a long-held ambition to create a hot ice cream. Some time later, we began serving a whisky-flavoured sorbet wreathed in flame.
All of this began with one chance meeting with Tom. And his book is like an enlarged version of that experience: it's brimming with intriguing insights and stimulating ideas about all sorts of things, from the nature of flavours to the content and structure of foodstuffs. I've said before that Food: The Chemistry of its Components should be on the bookshelf not just of every chef and scientist but of anyone interested in food or how the world around us works, and I stand by that. It's a fascinating read.