It’s likely you’ll have heard names such as The Fat Duck, Noma and El Bullibefore and you may even know their chefs, but do you know the guy who helped Heston Blumenthal develop his scientific approach to cooking?
Peter Barham was recently brought out to South Africa by Wehrner Gutstadt and his daughter Daniela over at Culinary Equipment Company, (oh, they’re just the whose who in exquisite professional kitchen equipment) to lecture on this fascinating topic. My colleagues and I attended the first one at Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch on the Helshoogte Pass, along with some of Cape Town’s finest chefs and foodies.
Peter is a teaching physicist at the university of Bristol in the UK. His primary focus has been polymer science but in the last 10 years or so he has thrown himself headlong into the emerging science of molecular gastronomy; a journey by scientists from various disciplines who want to understand exactly what it is that makes food of gastronomic quality really tasty.
The notion that every time we cook food we’re actually preparing a science experiment was quite a crazy one, and that people who cook with recipes and thus manage to improve their cookings skills are no different to scientists making discoveries in their laboratories blew my mind.
I thought that molecular gastronomy only existed in fine-dining restaurants where fancy foams, gels and purees lived, which were applied in a skid-mark sort of fashion across a piece of slate masquerading as a plate. Not so!
Peter talked about how the senses play a vital role in how each of us pick up very different tastes in food, and explained some of the common myths about food – some obvious but others required a new way of thinking about cooking where gastronomy and science come together.
There was an extensive discussion on cooking proteins via sous vide, and the very best cooking times and temperatures for different meat species and I could tell the chefs in the crowd were in their element.
Peter also explained the Malliad reaction: a process that causes meat to turn brown when heat is applied. The heated proteins on the surface of the meat combine with the sugars present and this combination creates that meaty flavour we know and irreversibly changes the colour and texture. Most of the research done in the 1940s and 1950s focused on preventing that reaction. Eventually though, scientists discovered the role the Maillard reaction plays in creating flavors and aromas. Peter mentioned as many as four hundred aroma components exist in cooked beef alone, which even my food technologist colleagues were astounded by.
Another really interesting point Peter made was that salt does not aide in helping green vegetables retain their bright colour. Have a gander at this short clip of Heston and Peter proving their point.
A really fascinating talk, and one I wished could go on all evening. Peter has a wonderful way of sharing some rather complex information in a very easy manner, and we left him with a crowd of people around wanting to have just one last word with him. Interestingly, Peter’s other passion lies in conservation, and we were told that all the proceeds from his lectures here would go to his research and conservation trust for penguins.
If you’re interested, Peter has just published the world’s first major review on molecular gastronomy called The Science of Cooking, available at good book shops.