From ice cream to chocolate, Heston Blumenthal's new resource shows how cooking can make science fascinating and fun. Victoria Neumark reports
Heston Blumenthal, whose three-Michelin-starred restaurant, the Fat Duck at Bray, was recently proclaimed Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine, has launched a new teaching resource for secondary chemistry.
"I was rubbish at science in school," says Heston, "but anything I can do to make it more accessible, I'm happy to do." At 16, Heston had O-level physics, A-level art and a determination to make his way as a chef.
A meal on a family holiday was the key. "We grew up in a one-bedroom basement flat in Paddington, but then my father got some success and we moved to Buckinghamshire. We went to France, and he took us to a three-starred Michelin restaurant - none of us had even been to a one-starred one before - and I was completely bowled over by the experience and thought, this is what I want to do."
Success in learning comes, he believes, from finding out about something you are really interested in. Leaving school with "zilch science but naivete and curiosity about the world", in 1985 he read a book called On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, which said "Browning meat does not seal in the juices". That, he says, was the catalyst. "I tried to get my hands on more literature and I tracked down scientists who could help and I found out more and more and it's gone on from there."
The new Kitchen Chemistry course from the Royal Society of Chemistry comprises teacher's notes and student material and a CD-Rom packed with information and links to video clips featuring Blumenthal in the Discovery Channel TV series Kitchen Chemistry.
Mouth-watering experiments and recipes include how to make ice-cream using liquid nitrogen (and protective clothing) to cool it. Nitrogen is so cold that the mixture freezes fast, making smaller ice crystals and a smoother texture. A unit on taste and flavour explores the difference: taste is experienced in the mouth, where different areas of the tongue pick out sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami, whereas flavour is analysed by the olfactory bulb behind the nose. Entertainingly, this unit also looks at the "asparagus wee" syndrome: producing strong-smelling urine after eating asparagus is confined to some genetic inheritors, but so, it turns out, is the capacity to smell it - and these genes are not the same, though they may overlap.
Other units look at meat cooking and connective tissue, why you don't need salt to boil vegetables; the action of salt to preserve in brining (using osmosis) and cooking; and why you need to temper chocolate - reboil it to make a shinier, smoother product.
A strong favourite in classrooms is bound to be one of the experiments in the microwave unit, where pupils can make an ice-bowl and fill it with water. Microwaves will boil the water and leave the ice intact, since the ice-crystals are packed so tight that the microwave oscillation cannot easily vibrate the molecular links and make enough heat to melt the ice.
It's imaginative, informative and, as Heston says: "I did well when I found something that really interested me. If you're lucky enough to find something you really enjoy doing, that's all you need in life."
l A copy of Kitchen Chemistry will be sent free to all UK schools and colleges later in the year. Materials in it can be used at all levels.