Review of Historic Heston – Heston Blumenthal

Posted: July 22, 2019 in cookbook, Review

British gastronomy has a grand old tradition that has been lost over time. Now our most inventive chef is out to reclaim it. Heston Blumenthal, whose name is synonymous with cutting-edge cuisine, still finds his greatest source of inspiration in the unique and delicious food that our sceptered isle once produced. This has been the secret to his success at world-famous restaurants The Fat Duck and Dinner, where a contrast between old and new, modern and historic, is key.

Historic Heston charts a quest for identity through the best of British cooking that stretches from medieval to late-Victorian recipes. Start with twenty-eight historic dishes, take them apart, put them together again and what have you got? A sublime twenty-first-century take on delicacies including meat fruit (1500), quaking pudding (1660) and mock turtle soup (1892). Heston examines the history behind each one’s invention and the science that makes it work. He puts these dishes in their social context and follows obscure culinary trails, ferreting out such curious sources as The Queen-like Closet from 1672 (which offers an excellent method for drying goose). What it adds up to is an idiosyncratic culinary history of Britain.

This glorious book also gives a unique insight into the way that Heston works, with signature dishes from both The Fat Duck and the double Michelin-starred Dinner, which is ranked 7th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. With a beautiful cover illustrated by the genius that is Dave McKean, his illustrations throughout, and some of the most superb food photography you’ll ever see, Historic Heston is a book to treasure. You think you know about British cooking? Think again.

Historic Heston

Heston Blumenthal


Purchased from Book Depository

Reviewed by Jacqui Smith

As some of you will know, I’m something of a fan of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, though I doubt I shall ever get to sit at one of his tables. More importantly, I have an abiding interest in culinary history, so when I saw this tome had been reduced to half price in the bargain shop at Book Depository I had to make that purchase. I say “tome” because it really is a hefty volume, over four hundred pages and two kilos in weight, so free shipping was very definitely a plus.

It is very much a book about cookery, as opposed to a cookery book. Heston leads the reader through a selection of historic British recipes from the medieval risotto-like “Ryse of Flesh” from “The Forme of Cury” to a thoroughly late Victorian “Mock Turtle Soup”. Each recipe has an illustration referencing the historic version, then a discussion of the historic context, followed by Heston’s explanation of how he modernised it for his restaurants, then the restaurant version and its photograph. So, there are recipes here, but no home cook is going to attempt Heston’s versions, they are impractical in the extreme, often requiring both ingredients and equipment unlikely to be found outside a high-end restaurant. If I wanted to attempt these recipes I’d be looking elsewhere (one of the earliest cookbooks in my collection, “Traditional Cooking” has a surprising number of them).

But that’s not the point. The culinary history is fascinating, and the food photography, especially in the “still life” shots, is totally amazing. If you’re into food history, you’ll find plenty to enjoy (if not to actually cook) in this book. I read it from cover to cover, a recipe or two at a time, with the weighty tome lying flat on the bed…

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