Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Emperor's new clothes

Some time ago I commented on an achievement of mine: baking biscuits.

The big deal is that, while I am reasonably good at cooking savoury dishes, I seem to be entirely incapable of baking anything, much to my mother's puzzled dismay (now a semi-retired baker).

The other big deal is that these biscuits are fiendishly difficult to make.

Thirdly: the recipe was a secret known to very few people, passed on from generation to generation, and only to a worthy few. Families have fallen out over it. There are, we estimate, no more than fifty people in the world who know how to make them.

These biscuits are coveted by those who know them, and command some really rather silly prices. There always has been some mystique associated with them. Their defining feature is that they are wholly insubstantial. They are the lightest bakery goods you have ever lifted, consisting mostly of air. The texture is supremely delicate and they all but vanish almost instantly on your tongue when you collapse them in your mouth.

Needless to say, we weren't part of the baking elite entrusted with the recipe. But, my mum is something of a genius in the kitchen and I know a thing or two about experimental design, colloid science and biopoymers. So we had a go.
Armed with tiny bits of anecdotal evidence, some folklore and a couple of intelligent guesses we quite literally locked ourselves in the house (heaven forfend people should know that you are attempting to bake those biscuits, there would be rumours, feuds even -I kid you not-), and set about unlocking the secret. I am pleased to say that we cracked the recipe, and most importantly, the method. Unusual to say the least. Certainly difficult; you're on a processing knife-edge the whole time. We solved the puzzle in a mere four days!

Now we are both making the legendary biscuits as and when we please, pointing at the expensive ones and laughing defiantly. I can knock up a few in as little as an hour of meticulously delicate work.
Given the (g)astronomical prices this delicacy commands, I thought I could sell a few, but wondered who else might want to buy them. You see, unless you are aware of the mystique associated with these biscuits you won't appreciate them. So, with the scientific detachment and objective judgement I am trained -and poorly paid- to exercise, I examined the biscuits further. I tasted them as disinterestedly as I could. Then I had an epiphany. An epiphany which, unlike most epiphanies, resulted in that sinking feeling of deflated disappointment, flat, like a failed chocolate soufflé.

These biscuits are not particularly special. They are identical to the bought ones in every aspect, but they aren't actually all that great. They are simply just ..well.. sweet. That's it. The allure is due to the secrecy, the texture and the reputedly difficult process, but taste-wise, they are rather underwhelming.

I pondered this for a few days, then plucked up the courage to speak to my mum. I picked up the phone and, cautiously, told her my conclusions. I was expecting some sort of gourmand-critic-style lecture on how I am missing the faint nuances of this and that. To my surprise she agreed: "There is nothing special to the taste", she confirmed.


Then she added: "Promise me you won't reveal the recipe to anyone". Of course I promised.

Now I am in that weird situation that, I suppose, not many people experience very often. I feel elation at having solved a difficult problem, I am in possession of privileged information, I have learned a new and difficult skill, I am possibly the only male in the world who knows how to make these biscuits, and yet I think they are mostly hot air. The biscuits aren't special in any gustatory sense.
The emperor appears to be naked.

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