This month we talk to TV presenter and food writer, Stefan Gates, about the weird and wonderful world of food science (it’s probably not advisable to read while tucking into your lunch…!)
What sparked your interest in the science behind food?
Weirdly enough, it was because I wanted to make TV programmes for kids. A few years ago, I'd spent loads of time away from my young family, travelling to some of the world’s grimmest places making serious documentaries about food and conflict for BBC2. I wanted to stay at home and do something my kids would want to watch, so together with a very clever producer called Paul Gilheaney we pitched an idea based on my first book, I, to CBBC.
They loved the idea, calling it Gastronuts. But you can’t just blow food up and turn it into rockets and games without a good reason, so I teamed up with a set of scientists including the beautiful and bonkers chemistry professor Andrea Sella, and it became a food science show. We made food rockets, set fire to all manner of foods and did a lot of blowing up. Oh, and we managed to get kids to eat sheep’s eyeballs!
You've been all around the world on your missions to discover weird and wonderful foods and tastes. From radioactive soup to fish bladders...what is the most bizarre thing you have ever tasted?
Rotten walrus liver has a very funky, rich, gamey, pukey flavour, like a supercharged high grouse. It also has enough heavy metals to build a bus.
The best insects are fat-arsed Colombian ants - they naturally taste of smokey bacon.
One of the most bizarre foods of all is bran flakes. The producers add a heck of a lot of minerals: you can actually extract the elemental iron from it using a neodymium magnet!
What is the most fascinating fact you can tell us about weird food science?
The beautiful biochemistry of farting is my current obsession (so much so that I’m writing a book called Fartology). The fartiest food on earth is the Jerusalem artichoke, because it has an extraordinarily clever indigestible sugar called inulin that is resistant to all the enzymes in your small intestine so arrives intact in your bowel.
Once there it has two functions: the inulin works as a prebiotic to feed and boost your gut bacteria, and the soluble fibre is the fuel on which those bacteria feast to produce gas. Enjoy!
As a gin club we feature a lot of food recipes that use gin. Why do you think this spirit is turning up in more and more recipes?
It’s those fantastic botanicals that can impart an extraordinary set of flavours to your food - and the sheer hipness of the stuff. I love using it to make glowing jellies (the tonic fluoresces under UV light) Get the recipe here.
Finally, we are particularly interested in the science of mixology. If you were to create the 'Gastronaut' gin cocktail, what would be in it and why?
Magical colour-changing cocktails – they’re a lot of fun! You need to use a gin with neutral acidity (a pH of around 7), and then get hold of some red cabbage. Chop the red cabbage and then blend in a food processor with a little water and strain through a sieve.
The resulting purple dye turns to blue when diluted in the gin, and make a Martini (any type of Martini as long as all the other ingredients are neutral too - warning: most fruit juices are a little acidic). Offer the drink with a quarter of fresh lemon and tell your friends to squeeze the lemon into it. It will change from blue to bright pink, and will take on the lemon tang, too!
To find out more about Stefan's foodie adventures, visit www.thegastronaut.com