Just in case any of you don’t know of him, Heston Blumenthal is a mad-scientist chef. Or a gastrochemist. Or something. He’s amazing and inventive and there’s nothing he won’t try. (My favourite Heston moment was when he slow-cooked a whole pig in a hot-tub, because it was the only body of water large enough that could hold a consistent heat. He sort of looks up and realises what he’s doing and says, “I like to think of myself as a relatively normal bloke, by the way.”)
He filmed a series called Heston’s Feasts in which he cooks feasts that encapsulate a whole historical period. As part of his Victorian feast he wanted to serve Turtle Soup, which was a delicacy of the era.
The first step he takes is to go to America, to a turtle farm. He catches and kills a turtle then sticks it whole into a tub of water and boils it. That’s how the Victorians made Turtle Soup. He tries some of the meat, decides it’s a weird stringy texture, and cans the whole idea.
Next, he looks into Mock Turtle Soup, which was made from cow head and thus much cheaper and available to the aspirational classes. He follows a genuine Victorian recipe that gives him a rich broth. Much better.
He doesn’t stop there, though.
Because he’s trying to distill the whole Victorian age, he looks to Lewis Carroll for more inspiration. Mock Turtle Soup was so ubiquitous there was even a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Mock Turtle (a turtle with a cow’s head). He distils the soup down, freezes it, clarifies it, freezes it even colder or something, and creates a fob watch from the stock. He covers it in gold leaf and attaches it to a string and a “Mad Hatter’s Tea” paper tab.
His guests brew this in a cup with hot water until it dissolves into a gorgeous golden broth, emulating the Mad Hatter dunking his fob watch in his tea.
He creates a fantasy wonderland in the bowl based around the idea of the mock turtle egg, which he makes from turnip mousse and swede jelly – two staple Victorian vegetables.
You know when you read those books that just feel thin? Watching Heston create something magical, it occurred to me: Those books are turtle boiled in water. “Thin” is what you get when an author has an idea – even a brilliant idea – and writes the first iteration of that idea.
I know there have always been certain books that are produced at a high rate, and certain authors who work fast – that in itself isn’t unique to the present publishing climate. But I do think current conditions encourage fast production. On the one hand there’s self-publishing, which for some authors means a far shorter production process, and on the other there’s the expectation for traditionally published authors to keep up with the demands of a media-consuming generation.
The thing is – ideas take time. Most authors, when pushed to it, can produce words fast. Ideas generate by building on each other and stewing in the subconscious and making new connections with other ideas.
Heston didn’t even use his first idea, even though he went all the way to America to investigate it. But the end product wouldn’t exist without it – it’s even referenced in the the layers of pressed fat in the tureen. That end product is so rich because every thought he passed through influenced his process, and can be seen in layers and obscure references. It is a rich, nuanced, thoughtful, delightful soup.
For me, it isn’t viable to spend three years on every book. That’s not the kind of career I want to have. But I also want to write excellent books, and it’s worth reminding myself that quality is worth standing up for.
The next romance series in my head is becoming an absolute epic. The working title for the series is Kings of Industry. I want it to be full of interesting side plots and characters that influence and tie in to the main story. I want the relationships in the main story to be complex and shocking and unexpected. I want the industry to reach through every aspect of English life and all the way out to newly opened Japan. I want the series arc to be gut-wrenching and intricate.
I can see just a glimmer of what I want it to be, and I know I’m not even close to ready to start the first chapter. If I tried to write it now, it would be a turtle boiled in water.
So what I’m playing with is the idea of finishing my young adult sci-fi series next – which I have put a year of ideas work into. A book every three years might not be viable, but there may be something in staggering books so that one is written while another gestates, until it’s ready to be written and I start working on the next new idea.
Thanks to Yahny in London for permission to use her gorgeous pics. You can read an account of her culinary experience at Heston’s restaurant here. And you can watch Heston put the final touches on the soup here.