Book Review: Kitchen Mysteries by Hervé This

Times Higher Education Supplement

This’s new book is an exuberant paean for the role of science in cooking. The reader who is content to be swept along in a torrent of prose will be rewarded by many striking images, such as that of mushrooms that have been sliced too long before a meal and which “go black, as though mourning their freshness”. The reader seeking concrete, reliable information will be much less satisfied. A book that claims to “reveal the science of cooking” invites comparison with such classics as Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking , Peter Barham’s The Science of Cookingand Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise . Regrettably, the comparison does not work in its favour.

This is a pity, because Herve is one of the great enthusiasts for the application of science to cooking. His passion comes through on every page, but it swamps the nuggets of concrete information. Nor will the reader find directions to that information in the index. There isn’t one.

Many of the author’s explanations are confusing, and some are just plain wrong. Milk, for example, certainly contains fat globules moving at different speeds, but the idea that the fastest ones are the most likely to coalesce does not accord with well-established experimental fact. Nor does the idea that covering bread “prevents water molecules from penetrating it to create unwanted bonds”. It was, in fact, a compatriot of Herve This, one Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, who showed in 1852 that bread could be hermetically sealed and yet still go stale. The problem is changes in the starch, not changes in the water.

My most serious worry about the book is the way it promotes “molecular gastronomy” as if it were a new and original science. The term was in fact invented by Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti as a tongue-in-cheek way of getting a symposium on cooking accepted by the director of the august Ettore Majorana Conference Centre at Erice in Sicily, a venue more noted for meetings on subjects such as the origin of the universe. The Erice meetings were great fun and many new ideas emerged, but all were concerned with using established science to help chefs understand and improve their cooking. It is a pity that the term “molecular gastronomy”, with its implication that the science is somehow more important than the cooking, ever escaped from the confines of Erice.

Leading chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller agree. All use science as one of many tools in their cooking, and all deplore the fact that their use of science has been overemphasised and sensationalised. According a statement issued by US food writer Harold McGee, these chefs make the point that their aim is not to pursue novelty for its own sake, but to “embrace innovation – new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information and ideas – whenever it can make a real contribution to our cooking”. They state that “the fashionable term ‘molecular gastronomy’ does not describe our cooking, nor indeed any style of cooking”. Perhaps it is time for this phrase to be decently buried, rather than further promoted.

This’s hero, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote that “the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star”. Science can contribute in no small measure to such discoveries, and in publicising this fact This’s book performs a great service. It is a shame that his occasional overclaiming and frequent underexplaining obscures this important message.

Len Fisher is visiting research fellow, Bristol University.

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