By Rosanne Buchanan
It was a bit of a last-minute flurry – an email had gone amiss and the PR was calling to check if Food & Home was going to join BA and their guest Heston for dinner… this is how my otherwise uneventful weekend became spectacularly gastronomic.
I had never heard of Shambala Private Game Reserve in the Waterberg either… but then it is a private lodge owned by magnate Douw Steyn, who also owns The Saxon. Zulu camp is open to select clients and BA is one of those exclusive clients.
We travelled by bus, we went for a game drive… and I was surprised and delighted when a harry casual Heston appeared on the scene, having just been on a game drive himself – no airs and graces, just warm, friendly and hugely passionate about food. And what a nice guy.
I loved the fact that he can pinpoint the moment he first got hooked on food. When he was 15 his parents took the family to France and more specifically L’Oustau de Baumanière Michelin star restaurant. He described how evocative the food was – the smells of the river, the sights around him, the taste of the food and the experience (which he says is nearly impossible to recreate).
He regaled us with his story of how he taught himself to cook using French cookbooks and how the science of food intrigued him; how, when he decided to open The Fat Duck, the old ladies in the Bray neighbourhood threatened to close him down; how he dropped a very elaborate allergy-free birthday cake and had to beg one off Michel Roux Jr…
Consider that today The Fat Duck is voted The Best Restaurant in Britain by The Good Food Guide and he has two booking agents, taking up to 30 000 phone calls a day for a 42-seater! And he has Dinner by Heston Blumenthal featuring historic British dishes at the Mandarin Hotel in Hyde Park, London, which received a Michelin star within a year. Apparently this is already fully booked for the next two years!
He spoke about his Mission Impossible television series – focusing on how the effects of altitude affect taste and smell and how sensory inhibitors make it even more impossible to prepare a tasty meal on board a flight. Height Cuisine, he called it. And apparently we lose 30% of our ability to taste food at 35 000 feet. You can’t even boil water at that level.
He also spent some time talking about umami – the fifth taste, saying it is something we all have but don’t really recognise as a phenomenon. It’s present in foods we love like soy sauce, Marmite and Parmesan. The term is not new – it was coined by a Japanese scientist in 1908 but there is no direct translation. It seems umami is an additional savoury and meaty ‘mouth feel’.
“We’ve been told in the Western world that there are four basic tastes… salty, sweet, bitter and sour,” he said, but we’ve always used umami to add richness and fullness to the food we cook.
Heston’s in really good shape, certainly he doesn’t look his 46 years. I had to ask his girlfriend Suzanne, a fellow cook and cookbook writer, how Heston stays so slim and toned. “He’s obsessed with exercise,” she told me.
And who cooks at home? “We don’t really cook… we get mostly Indian or Japanese takeaways – Heston loves the fresh flavours of Japanese food, or we make sandwiches!”
Mike Turner Photography