Milk snatcher on chemistry of food

Milk snatcher on chemistry of food

Milk snatcher on chemistry of food

Margaret Thatcher. AP Photo

Did you know that the late British prime minister had contributed to the rise of prime dining or good food in Britain? Margaret Thatcher surely was not known as an accomplished gourmet; actually she was never a supporter of food-related issues. Known notoriously for cutting milk in schools, she was nicknamed “Thatcher the milk snatcher.”

How come the milk snatcher can be associated with her contribution to good food in Britain? Well, it’s a chain reaction as one would put it in chemical terms. Actually it is a set of two very different chain reactions. First having a direct effect, the second a rather indirect one, dispersed in time.

Her first contribution was supporting chef Raymond Blanc by showing enthusiasm in his interest in chemistry in the kitchen. That was quite awkward because she was not known for her passion for science. Being trained as a chemist at Oxford University, she is not even fondly remembered in scientific circles. Thatcher’s legacy in British science is quite questionable. In 1985 she was denied an honorary degree from her own Oxford University because of her education cuts. But as a former chemist she appeared on Blanc’s BBC show Blanc Mange. Blanc was a new up-and-coming French chef who settled in Britain back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Thatcher came to power. Somehow I remember the prime minister vividly explaining what happens exactly when you beat an egg white. Thatcher’s explanations on how protein chains bond together in whisked egg white, trapping air to form the glorious peaks of meringue remained with me ever since. That single show made me buy the Blanc Mange book at once, and years later the book Kitchen Secrets again by Blanc.

When I heard about her passing away I remembered her talking about whisking egg whites and thought that it was probably the first time I ever heard somebody talking about chemistry in the kitchen. Blanc’s BBC program was the first on TV that tried to explain in chemical terms what happens with your food when you cook. I was always curious to find the reasons behind things and the bits of information on the show and in the book fascinated me. Later I realized that it was Professor Nicholas Kurti, a former professor of engineering science at Oxford University, who wrote the chemistry notes for Blanc. He was a mentor to Blanc and he was the one, together with the French chemist Hervé This, to coin the term molecular gastronomy. Probably that very first show on the BBC was the roots of my becoming a fan of Harold McGee, author of the heroic book “McGee on Food & Cooking – An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture.”

Thinking about all this, I checked Blanc’s Twitter account and found out something else about Thatcher’s contribution to his career. Blanc tweeted upon her passing, revealing that he owed her two debts of gratitude, saying: “She helped me twice – 1st to set up Le Manoir – the other gave me a grant!” So Thatcher had been the shadow supporter of the legendary restaurant in Oxford, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, that received two Michelin stars 19 years in a row since its opening in 1984. That alone was a contribution to British food, I guess!

Her second legacy in food is more indirect, but I think she contributed to the rise of Jamie Oliver’s popularity as a young talented chef becoming an advocate of bettering school lunches. She is, after all, the reason behind the notoriously awful school lunches in Britain. As the minister of education she not only cut free milk to schoolchildren but also killed school lunches as part of her austerity measures. In the 1980s her rule obliged local authorities to open up provision of school meals to competitive tender.

This policy caused a drastic drop in the quality of food fed to children. Things went so terribly wrong that years later the disastrous school lunches made Oliver make a campaign to put an end to this whole phenomenon. Oliver, being a Thatcher child born in 1975, knew about what it meant to be fed bad food in schools. He had the courage to stand up against the use of processed foods served in national schools in his television series, “Jamie’s School Dinners” and even made the producer of Turkey Twizzlers, which was singled out in the series as an emblem of mass-produced processed food, discontinue the product.

Thatcher probably did not enjoy her work as a chemist earlier in her career developing emulsifiers for mass-produced ice cream. Well, maybe we should be grateful for her not pursuing a career in the food industry. She might have developed the most horrendous chemical-laden food products. She surely did better for industry as the Iron Lady. Her snatching the milk and smashing the school lunches may have ruined the appetite of a few generations, but finally food is becoming way better in Britain thanks to chefs like Blanc and Oliver!

Recipe of the Week

Floating islands is a recipe ideal for the legacy of the chemist Thatcher as it involves knowledge of whisking egg whites. I won’t re-name it ‘Floating Falklands’ after Thatcher, that would be unfair to chef Blanc, who likes to call it by the original French name, Iles Flottantes. Whisk six egg whites until stiff with exactly 12 drops of lemon juice, then slowly add 100 grams sugar, whisking constantly until the meringue holds firm peaks. Warm 1.3 liters of milk in a pan with a few drops of pure vanilla extract. The milk must remain just below simmering point, slightly shimmering. Using a large spoon dipped in hot water to scoop dollops of meringue and gently place in the vanilla milk.

Poach the meringues five minutes on each side and remove with a slotted spoon to a tray. Add 2 tsp. sugar to the remaining milk and bring to a boil. Meanwhile whisk 10 egg yolks with 75 grams sugar. Pour the hot milk on the eggs, whisking constantly and pour the mixture back into the saucepan, stirring constantly over medium heat. When the custard thickens, remove from heat at once. Strain the custard in bowls and float meringue islands on top. Serve with caramel sauce drizzle.

Bite of the week

Fork & Cork of the Week: The good news is that Harold McGee will be visiting Istanbul soon, taking part in the first-ever edition of the biggest international food event, Gastro Istanbul, between May 8 and 12. Check the program and try to grab a fork of good food; keeping an eye out, you might be lucky enough to bump into him at one of the stalls. You may also enjoy a panel or Turkish coffee or have a sip of the finest wines in Turkey.