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Heston and historic food

Watch Professor Kate Williams ask Heston Blumenthal OBE, owner of The Fat Duck, what first inspired his love for historic food.
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It’s amazing to have you here with us on the MOOC. It’s really thrilling and exciting to have you, the expert on historic food. But where did it come from, your love for historic food? So I went up to this Books for Cooks. It’s like the main cookbook shop in London, or in Britain, to look for what other books had been written on this subject. Anyway, I’m just a big kid. I get easily distracted. So within a few minutes, I’d seen this thin, yellow paperback and it was the translation of a manuscript. This guy that translated the Viandier, who’s the chef to the Paris, I think it was 13th century, and I just had a quick flick through.
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It was written in ye olde English, which at the beginning is fairly tricky– Oh, ye olde English. Not the dreaded ye olde English. Exactly. And I saw this– it was a dish, basically, about how to roast a chicken and bring it back to life. And you took this chicken, you plucked it while it was alive, you basted its skin with a mixture of wheat germ and saffron and dripping. And according to the recipe, it made it look like it was roasted. You then put its head under its belly and rock it to sleep. No way. You put your head under its belly and rock it to sleep? Yes. Insane.
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And then I put this on a serving platter with two roasted chickens and bring it into your kind of vaulted ceiling master’s dining room. I’m feeling it. Yeah, I like it. 25-foot-long table. I love it. I love it. And then you start carving one of the roasted chickens and the poor chicken that’s been plucked alive and basted and rocked to sleep wakes up– No. Yeah. This is getting really bad. [CHICKEN CLUCKING] And runs down the table. And the recipe says it’s upsetting goblets and whatnot. That’s part of the recipe. It’s the theatre of it. So you think the chicken’s dead and then suddenly it wakes up saying [CHICKEN CLUCKING] and dashes down the table?
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Runs down the table and knocks things over. And then everyone has to catch it? Yeah. Then you take this poor thing and you kill it. No way. And you roast it. Before you roast it, you stuff its neck with a mixture of mercury– obviously– and sulphur. And when you bring it out of the oven, those two minerals, those two things react and create the clucking sound. I did this. It never made it into the final show, but there’s a scene. I went to UCL to see this professor and we took it, a roasted chicken a dead chicken with a head on and neck on and we put mercury and sulphur in its neck and nothing happened.
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And the guy said, they don’t react, it’s not possible. And then you kind of realise that from there, when I first saw that recipe, for some reason we think of creativity being a modern thing. But without creativity, we wouldn’t have arrived where we are today. And in fact, in those days, they didn’t have audio systems, they didn’t have big sound systems and TV screens and computer games. At top level, we realized that food was incredibly theatrical. And it turned out these recipe books were not written for sale. I was just like a kid in a sweet shop. I got so excited about this.
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I thought, it would be really interesting if a chef could then with modern day kit and knowledge could then start playing around with those recipes. But if we had any of the information of some of, encapsulating some of maybe the culture and stuff that was happening at the time. And that’s where the whole thing started. Fantastic. Thanks for being with us. Thank you.
We hope you have enjoyed our exploration of Tudor food and feasting this week.
In Week 2 we move onto the Elizabethan era, and we’re very excited to be joined by our celebrity guest, honorary University of Reading graduate and award winning chef, Heston Blumenthal, OBE. Before we do, we thought you might like to join us, behind the scenes, for a sneak preview of what’s coming up next.
Join Kate in this video, as she catches up with Heston and asks what first inspired his love of historic food. Heston describes his passion for antique recipe books and how he arrived at his Eureka moment of applying ideas gleaned from some of these earliest publications, to the innovative dishes and menus he creates for his restaurants today.
Thankfully, we no longer treat animals in the way the chicken was presented in the historic recipe that Heston and Kate discuss in this clip, but can you think of an example of food being presented as theatre today? Share your thoughts in the comments area below before you move on to the next Step.
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A History of Royal Food and Feasting

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