Whether it's upping sticks and taking his three-Michelin-starred restaurant to Australia or creating a fruit made of meat, it's fair to say Heston Blumenthal is a genuine pusher of boundaries. Now, those boundaries include, quite literally, the stratosphere: in a process documented by Channel 4 for its upcoming documentary Heston's Dinner in Space, he was set to task on creating a menu for British astronaut Tim Peake to eat while in orbit. Not only did these meals have to be a significant upgrade on the food traditionally eaten, Blumenthal also set the challenge of creating dishes that could provide Peake with an emotional link to his home and his family, from the furthest place he could physically be from them.
He talks about how it came about, the challenges that arose, and the finished documentary.
On the TV programme
Why did you decide to get involved?
The funny thing was we actually got approached for the Life in Space show the year before. I looked at the timescale and I think we'd have had six months – I thought that this wasn't a thing to be done just for a TV show; this was a real thing. So I turned it down, because there just wasn't enough time.
When this opportunity came up, it was a completely different kettle of fish. In fact, this project was done as a project, not as a TV show. We'd already started the work. And luckily, Channel 4 took up the challenge, and they were great throughout the process, because they really did let us get on with it, and to have too many TV hurdles on top of the other challenges I think might have sent us over the edge.
You can see on this that there were times when I was exhausted, just because of the sheer amount of work. There'd been very little work done on what happens when we eat in space. And eating, along with breathing and regulating our body temperature, are the three things we need to do to live. Eating good food has been one of the main thing in evolving us as human beings.
You've got this millions and millions of pounds' worth of investment, hundreds of people – it's all about the astronauts, but they're supported by thousands of people on the ground who work their socks off. I did a bit of research and I saw these comments online saying it's very elitist, but in fact all these guys on the support team have evolved our lives on earth significantly. Without them, we wouldn't have mobile phones for example, or all the satellite stuff. The other thing is, by doing the research without gravity, we learn so much about ourselves and the evolution of life.
You look at all of that, and the fact that the astronauts go through all this training – there are only six of them, they have to be everything from IT experts to doctors, they're jacks-of-all trades, they're experts in everything they do – but somehow food, that thing we need to keep us alive and we have such an emotional relationship with, is just considered to be something to use to plug them in and recharge them. So you're almost turning them into machines.
When they're up there, they're working their socks off. I thought, why can't we tailor something? Tim's going to be away from his family for a big chunk of time. Why can't it connect him with them? The dishes aren't everything he eats every day, because if we did it with that, you do need a contrast, you'd almost need some of the dodgier stuff to appreciate the nicer stuff.
Ever wondered what astronauts ate before Heston came along? Click here to see an infographic
On the food itself
What were the main challenges of creating food for space?
Everyone knows the freeze-dried ice cream, which I think might have gone up to space once in the 70s, but as we started to unpeel the layers of complexity and challenges that were required, and the hurdles we had to get through, we really began to learn about all the issues. You've got the problem of the consistency of the food – if its viscosity isn't enough, then it's just going to fly out. Crumbs could go in somebody's eye. The air's really clean up there, you can't contaminate that. There's millions of pounds worth of kit, and if that goes down, you can't just phone an electrician.
Very little is 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 session with Tim in a lab in Bray where we just did a series of experiments about bitterness levels, all the different tastes, the sense of smell, the trigeminal stuff, which involves the nerve that's affected when you eat wasabi, horseradish and mustard.
Very little is known about what happens to your salt thresholds, your ability to perceive acidity, sweetness, bitterness, all the things that give food its structure
He and I got to know each other more and the process was fantastic, but it did have an awful lot of challenges and finding out that we needed to put the food in cans and not in packets was a bit of a shock.
We kept on losing months, although we had a couple of years to do this. When you do a test, it was like a ten-hour trip to get to Brittany, and we'd have to go through the canning process, then leave it for a period of time, before we could run the tests on it, then taste it. It's not like in a normal kitchen where you cook something and can tweak it.
The moisture migration was particularly problematic. We made a bacon sandwich which I made with the idea that he'd eat it further into his trip, when he started to miss the simple stuff. We just had to try and trigger, somehow, the memory of a bacon sandwich. We did so many tests. The first thing we did was butter on the bread, and ketchup, but what happens is, the sugar in the ketchup and the water in the butter, and the water content in the bread – and some breads have sugar in them – all react under that temperature, and it depends on the moisture that's released, because if there's not enough of it, the sugar will start to caramelize and the bread will go black. And then the bacon just falls apart, and the ketchup goes black, and the water content in the butter, it's all wet and soggy on one side and one side's wetter than the other.
We tried biscuits in there, we tried pastry in there, all sorts of things, and again, open the tin. There's no way to measure if the sauce is too thin to open the can in space. That was another thing: after Tim said yes, he liked the food, it went to somebody who wasn't going up into space who had a whole set of boxes to tick.
It was all about the power of food. If it can connect him to his family, to his home, to society, if it can connect him in a positive and emotional way, then that shows how much more work we've got to do to enjoy the food that we eat, and to embrace it for the emotional connection that it can have in bringing people together. That was the most important thing for me, although, obviously I wanted it to be the best food he'd eaten, relative to what else was up there.
They can only heat stuff to 80 degrees, they can't brown anything, and if the food I've made can still serve as a connection, that would open a whole future of research.
Tim Peake's Space Food – in pictures
Which was the dish which caused you the most amount of bother?
The bacon sandwich. I didn't even think about doing one until the realisation came that we'd have to put everything in cans. No one had done any research on the moisture moderation so we couldn't research it. For example, when we did bangers and mash – it actually just ended up being sausages and onion gravy– the onions, if you didn't cook them enough and drive enough moisture out, if you put it in the tin, it was just brown water. If you cook them too much, they'd get tough and turn everything bitter.
But you only get one chance at this, and when you get it up there, it occupies really valuable space when it comes to transport. So if it doesn't work, you lose valuable food, or you eat something that you don't want to eat. The idea behind lots of it was to envoque what you would you miss after six months or three months. We did try a cheese and ham sandwich. I can't even describe it.. It didn't work. It behaves completely differently. That was probably the biggest one.
What's the most unpleasant thing you saw on the traditional space menu?
There were a lot of vacuum-sealed pouches that were clear so you could see inside, and some of the freeze-dried fruit with Russian writing on that were from the 1970s. You couldn't taste anything. Most of the food was bland, although the food that tended to work had high acidity in it. Everything was overcooked. What seemed to happen was that whoever developed these recipes would just decide to a dish and then decided to do the space version of it, as opposed to looking at certain food in cans that are not worse than their fresh version, like tinned tuna. One of the other things was that at least in a can it was going to be drier and more compact and it wouldn't look anything like dish you'd plate up, but there was an expectation when people open a can of food, of what that food will look like from our experience with canned foods.
The old menus from the 70s featured prawn cocktail, which was one of the most popular 'dishes'
There were certain dishes that worked OK – there was a bit of prawn cocktail, which I think was one of the most popular dishes up there, then there was a fruit compote–apple purée thing. But everything really was varying levels of blandness – and that was on earth! And your tastebuds are suppressed up there, so we tried to push up the acidity, some of the chilli in the Thai curry; we put the rice in, but there was no way of stopping it going soft. We tried to find things that would give a textural contrast, because the astronauts did say that they really missed the texture. We found things like bamboo shoot or baby corn, and we found a bit of the cartilage when you take off a chicken breast from the carcass, if you pressure cook it, it goes really nice and gelatinous, and that worked in the tin as well.
In terms of practicality, how much did each of these meals cost to prepare and package and how does that compare to traditional space menus?
Expensive. The beef and black truffle stew, which was intended so that Tim could have a romantic dinner with his wife, was one of the most pricey, although there was a benefit to the tins here. The backbone of my cooking for a long time now has been about the senses and if you can eat something why you're smelling something that's congruent that supports it, then it can give you that much more pleasure – but you can't do any of that sensory stuff in the space station. What they do have is a cardbook book that you can put the tin, so Tim can open this book and flames pop up and photos of his kids pop up. That's enough, because the brain doesn't need all of the bits of the jigsaw to nudge it to the memory. You can be somewhere completely foreign that you've never been before and a certain smell takes you straight back to being a kid. Tim can put his iPad in this table setting and his wife will be chatting to him. I did have another idea, but we didn't have enough time and it was cost-prohibitive from any company's point of view, that when the show came out members of the public could buy one tins of the food that Tim was eating and have it there and eat it while watching him eat it, so there's that real connection.
On Tim Peake, and the prospect of space travel
You got to know Tim quite well; what was your relationship with him like?
Great! We met quite a few times, and his family as well. He's very calm, very relaxed, but also very comfortable in his own skin. His feedback was great, he'd stop and think about things while he was tasting them. The levels of whether we were talking about the bitter receptors or the sour notes, the acidity, the level of chilli in a dish, he was very in touch with himself and that made it much easier. It was the one easy bit in the process. I've spoken to him since he went up there, which was tricky because there's a 20-second delay, at the end, I got really emotional, and I'm not the one up there, removed from my family. It was a strange but wonderful feeling. And he asked for a lot more food, too.
I got really emotional, and I'm not the one up there, removed from my family
If it was possible for you suddenly to go out into space, is that something that would appeal to you, and if so, what would you miss most?
I think it would be a cup of tea. I love my tea. And drinking tea out of a pouch with a straw... you'd get used to it, I'm sure, but it's just not right. I don't know. I'd love to go up there and then come down when I want to, but that's not possible.
Heston's Dinner in Space, 6pm, Sunday 20 March on Channel 4