The Version Interview... Heston Blumenthal on Heston's Dinner In Space.
Long before lift-off, British astronaut Tim Peake challenged Heston Blumenthal to create dishes to eat during his six month mission on board the International Space Station, which would remind him of home. The result of a two year research and development project is a menu of multi-sensory, gravity defying dishes including a bacon sarnie and sausage sizzle that conjure up nostalgic memories of life on earth.
Heston’s Dinner in Space will follow the real scientific adventures of Heston Blumenthal and his team, as they work closely with the UK Space Agency, ESA and NASA and attempt to revolutionise the previously limited world of space food, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the most scientific of ways.
Heston tells us more...
What was the motivation behind Heston’s Dinner in Space?
When this opportunity came up to work with the UK Space Agency and Tim Peake I jumped at the chance, Channel 4 took up the challenge and we were left to delve into the science and food and get on with it. The thing that I found fascinating when we started was that very little work has been done on what happens to food in space, and what happens to when we eat in space. Eating, breathing and regulating our body temperature are the three things we need to do to live and yet this area didn’t seem to have been explored in the same depth. I would love this to be an ongoing project because I loved it so much.
Why is food so important in space?
We need food to keep us alive, but I believe that we have an emotional relationship with food that goes beyond its role as just a nutritional function. When we send astronauts in to space they work their socks off, they are masters of all trades and use food as a way to plug in and recharge. But astronauts like Tim will be away from their families for a big chunk of time and while they are working constantly why shouldn’t they have some food with an element of personalisation to make the process of being so far from home a little easier.
Did you have any pre-conceptions about space food before you started?
I think everyone knows about the frozen dried ice-cream, which might have gone up to space once in the 70s. That’s it, and that is our concept of Space Food.
What were the key lessons you learnt from making food to be eaten in space?
We discovered the huge changes your body goes through in space and the zero gravity environment impacts your sinuses which heavily impacts your sense of smell. By doing the research without gravity we learn so much about ourselves and the evolution of life. There is still very little known about what happens to your salt thresholds, your ability to perceive acidity, sweetness, bitterness – all the things that give food its structure. We ended up doing a series of experiments with Tim to discover his particular preferences with flavours – testing his bitterness levels, how he reacts to pepper and chillies.
What hurdles did you face whilst the preparation of the food?
I started with plenty of ideas but soon realised that we can’t do this and we can’t do that. We faced huge problems with the consistency of the food, if you open up a packet and the viscosity is wrong it’s just going to fly out. We also had to be careful with crumbs; if they get loose they can get inside the kit and cause huge problems. If those millions of pounds worth of kit go wrong, you can’t phone your electrician and get him to pop up and fix it.
The process was fantastic, but finding out that we needed to store the food in cans rather than in sachets was a bit of a shock – and definitely one of the biggest learning curves of the experiment.
Testing the food also had its complications, we’d have to drive for ten hours to get to Brittany, and two of my chefs from the Fat Duck, Deiniol and Tony, had to go backwards and forwards to the canning factory. They must have spent about 25 days there, going through the canning process, leaving the food for a period of time, and then running tests on it. It’s not like in a normal kitchen where you cook something and think ‘ah, it needs a bit less cooking, a bit more parsley’, everything is completely different.
What did you learn the most about space?
That in space there is no up or down, it’s just quite hard to get your head around, that the wall is the floor, and the ceiling.
How did you work with Tim to ensure the personal relationship with food?
When I went through the process of meeting Tim we went to Sandhurst, in a forest and sat around a gas fire and chatted. Tim loves the great outdoors, which is quite funny that has chosen to go to Space and can’t go outdoors; instead he’s spending all this time up there in a small environment. But when talking to him, he did in some respects see food as a bit of a fuel, but he still has memories of certain moments in his life where food played a huge role and in turn can root you in time and place. Those memories of who he was with, the particular smells and flavours will help connect him to his family, and that really is something what is incredibly important.
Tell us about the bacon sandwich
When I was thinking about this I thought the kind of stuff that you’d miss would be the simple stuff, to be able to trigger the memory of a bacon sandwich would be a huge achievement. But it was one of the most complicated dishes to create. We went through so many tests for this one:
Firstly we tried putting butter on the bread and ketchup in, but the food has to be cooked for a really long time and what happens is the sugar in the ketchup and the water in the butter and the water content in the bread and the sugar in the bread all reacted under that temperature. What starts to happen is the sugar starts to caramelise and the bread goes black and the bacon completely falls to pieces and the ketchup goes black. We tried biscuits in there, pastry in there, all sorts of things.
And it comes down to if Tim liked the food or not, that was the first thing but after that it went to somebody it wasn’t going up in space but there with a whole set of boxes to tick to say yes this is going to be approved. So what seemed like a good development time.
Are you going up in to Space any time soon?
Umm, no, Tim was a fighter pilot trainer and then went through a selection process of thousands of people and then he went through three years of really intense training, and even if I could do that I don’t know if I would do anyway.
Heston's Dinner In Space airs Sunday 20 March at 6pm on Channel 4.