You can blame Heston Blumenthal for the culinary chaos that took place over my dinner table recently. I fell for his style of dramatic cooking 10 years ago, after a Steavenson family visit to the Fat Duck, his restaurant in Bray. Yes, the meal was delicious, but it was something else that made it special; something more than taste. A spoonful of lime and green tea meringue cooled in a fog of liquid nitrogen rendered my mother speechless. I caught my father giggling as he scooped his spoon through edible sand, complete with sea creatures nestled in a foam shoreline. The meal was surprising (gel tabs that melted pine flavour on your tongue); it was witty (egg and bacon ice cream); it was theatre. During his 2012 television series Fantastical Food, Blumenthal cooked up crazy-extravaganza-silliness: a medieval banquet where a man in a jerkin shot an arrow into the hide of a deer to herald roast venison; a Scott of the Antarctic Roll for a Titantic-themed meal; a gothic horror repast where the main course consisted of meaty ribs nestled in a replica skeleton.
Blumenthal invented dishes as storytelling, and I have caught the bug. It’s his fault that I am inspired to make narratives out of celebration meals. Readers may recall my D-Day dinner in Normandy last June, when I made a tricolore cake for dessert. This summer is my fathers’ 80th birthday and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Dad is a Napoleon fanatic. Well, I thought gleefully: let the madness begin:
I began by visiting all my favourite kitchen shops and found a cookie cutter in the shape of a horseman carrying a lance; a giant spherical ice cube mould; and plastic cocktail sticks made to look like silver sabers. But in the age of internet, there are no limits to my crazy ideas. I ordered salt petre, charcoal and sulphur—which are the ingredients of gunpowder and all more or less edible—a cuirassiers’ armoured breastplate, Napoleon mandarin liqueur, bicorn hats, dry ice, moulds for making little chocolate bees (Napoleon’s insignia) and gold leaf. I even found a nice Thai lady in Peckham who undertook to carve a lion out of swede so that I could put it on top of a salad hill and reproduce the “Lion’s Mound” monument that dominates the battlefield today.
Dad decorated the dining room with all his toy soldiers lined up in regiments. Mum got out her best gilt-edged china. The octogenarian guests were served “Twelve Pounder” punch on arrival, a concoction of Napoleon brandy and champagne poured over a “cannon ball” of frozen orange juice. They were a bit unsure about the horsemeat served on a cuirassier’s breastplate seasoned with gunpowder, even though I assured them this is what the French cavalry would have eaten while on campaign. But they were warmed up again with my flaming “grapeshot” glasses of grappa, into which they stirred dry ice so that the smoke flowed over the table.
Obviously there was beef Wellington. And chicken Marengo, the famous dish invented after Napoleon’s great victory in Italy when the baggage train was lost and his chef had to rustle something up with the only ingredients he could lay his hands on: pilfered hens, crayfish and tomatoes. Napoleon once said that “an army marches on its stomach” and he offered a prize to anyone who could design a method of preserving food for his army to carry with them. The winner came up with tin cans.
The fortuitous late arrival of the Prussians, which turned the tide in the battle, was a propitious mouthful of “angels on horseback”—oysters wrapped in bacon. To represent the last stand of the Imperial Guard I made soldiers—toast topped with egg yolk, baked into a fudge consistency at precisely 68 degrees and topped with black trompette de la mort mushrooms to look like shako hats. Dessert was Napoleon’s final chapter—exile to St Helena—an île flottante in a sea of English custard. I had even managed—by making my own mould out of silicon and cornflour—to create a chocolate bust of Napoleon, filled with a mousse of Corsican myrtle berries. I gilded it with edible gold leaf.
My brother downloaded martial music played on the original instruments of the Grande Armée; we played the movie Waterloo in the background; my boyfriend did his party trick of opening a bottle of champagne with a sword. Everyone laughed and joined in. Behind the scenes, the kitchen was authentically battlefield disaster. I tried to make a caramel “N” to place on top of the floating island dessert. It took three attempts of shaping molten caramel to make it. When it finally cracked into several pieces, I stamped my foot and cried—my own parallel, apposite defeat. Mum kindly pointed out that Napoleon was broken by his exile, so a broken “N” made symbolic sense. And after all, I consoled myself, no great general or chef is without their failures. Even the obsessive Blumenthal called one of his books In Search of Perfection.