Sunday, April 01, 2012

Adventures in Jelly

It was St. Patrick's Day and I had a vision in green that I was determined to see come to fruition. It was all thanks to one of my favourite foodie shows - that BBC Radio 4 Sunday staple, the Food Programme. If you haven't tuned in, you should give it a try, because you can listen to a lot of their back catalogue on the BBC iPlayer and it's well worth it. Sometimes they do a report on one ingredient or type of food - scotch, say, or arbroath smokies - and sometimes they focus on a broader issue. They had an interesting couple of programs featuring Michael Pollan, for example, controversial foodster who advocates ignoring 'nutritionism' and focusing on eating simply. His mantra is 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants;' also, eat basically what your grandmother would recognize as food.

I'm not sure whether Michael Pollan would recognize jello as food - especially not after I took out the packet of lime green powder and shook it into the boiling water - but my grandmother would. Real gelatin obviously has its uses in the functional kitchen, mostly along the lines of preserving meats, but jello as a dessert has been a fun treat for generations. It has the kid-attracting qualities of being brightly coloured, mobile, mixable and sculptable. And ridiculously sweet.

The episode I'd listened to featured jelly (or jello, to North Americans) and the use of food as spectacle through history - magnificent molded jellies topping the sort of banquets that last for days, for example.

The master of this form was Antonin Carême, who was a chef to Napoleon, George IV and Tsar Alexander I. You should read the story of his endeavours, if you aren't familiar with this 'chef to kings and king of chefs' - it starts out when he was abandoned by his parents in 1794 during the French Revolution, and continues through his apprenticeship in a patisserie, his challenge under Talleyrand (the first Prime Minister of France) to create a different menu every day for a year based on seasonal food, and his incredible career as a freelancer in some of Europe's most lavish kitchens. He is best known for creating pièces montées, extraordinary food sculptures depicting natural and architectural designs, created using pastry, spun sugar, jelly and whatever food ingredients suggested themselves. He is known as the first master of haute cuisine. And the inventor of the chef's hat!

I include this pic of him (on the right) because I think it is similar in swagger and knife-wielding to this one of Anthony Bourdain:

A London company who call themselves modern 'jellymongers,' Bompas & Parr, has taken up the Carême gauntlet and modernized the jelly spectacle, making astonishing food-based creations and experiences. They got their start in jellies and have famously made a jelly St.Paul's Cathedral:

Carême was well-known for making architectural pieces, and Bompas and Parr are no different. They've made a jelly Millenium Bridge, a jelly airport and a jelly Buckingham Palace. They do special events, and provide a jelly technician to help you set up!

But their most incredible work involves some very cutting-edge large-scale events: on one project they flooded the roof of Selfridges with emerald green stevia syrup, created crystal islands and provided rowing boats to navigate (tea was served, of course); they've created an Alice in Wonderland feast for 2,000 people; a five-ton chocolate waterfall; a dirt banquet; a concrete cake and flavour-it-yourself chewing gum. They've taken inspiration from Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Arthur C. Clarke. They've held a 'Taste-O-Rama' banquet where they screened Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom whilst simultaneously serving the food presented in the banquet in the film (monkey's brains, eyeball soup and the like). Underground. For the upcoming Olympics, they'll be making a forty-foot chocolate climbing wall.

Unbelievable, right? Where does my green-jellied vision fit in to all of this, you might ask? It was a poor vision in comparison, and I seem to remember the jellies of my youth setting up much more easily into amazing molds. All I wanted were some lime-green jelly initials for everyone at a St. Patrick's Day party we were going to. Sadly, they didn't set well (see first photo). They looked good, but when I tipped the mold over, imagining my solid green jellies sliding perfectly onto the plate, they just stayed put. Jelly fail! Flora told me to use more gelatin sheets, and spray the mould beforehand. Good tips! I will try again. But the jelly-letters were at least delicious, and the kids at the party scooped them out of their mold - and into their Sprite! - with aplomb.

Has Bompas & Parr ever done typographical jelly, I wonder?

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